On ‘The Wire’: Television, Serial, Melodrama

Contrary to David Simons’s assertion, the series is not ‘Greek tragedy’

In the summer and fall of 2007, I was laid up in bed. For the first time in my life since childhood I had time to feed my “hunger for fiction” via television. A friend had brought me an inspired gift: bootlegs of the first three seasons of The Wire. I proceeded to watch an episode each evening until I ran out. As soon as I could I purchased the last two seasons and continued to steadily feed a growing habit. The series ran on HBO from 2002 to 2008, but ran in a more concentrated time on my bedroom TV from 2007 to 2008.

By the time I finished watching I was more than a fan, I was a convert.

Through the microcosm of one decaying American city, The Wire reveals the interconnected truths of many institutional failures: a rampant drug trade that police cannot curtail, the devaluation of work measured in declining unions, a cynical city government that raises and then crushes the hope of reform, the poignant waste of schools and the failure of education and, finally, a media that cannot report on the truth of any of the above, let alone see the connections among them, although The Wire itself does. The exemplary writing and plotting draws on the expertise of some of America’s best contemporary writers of urban crime fiction — George Pelecanos, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane — but within the television serial form. The series digs deeply into character without making private virtue or evil the final cause of narrative outcomes, thus putting an unusual spin on melodramatic conventions. I have never seen anything so absorbing, so complex, so simultaneously challenging and gratifying coming from either the big or little screen.

Subtle nuances of race, class and language are made possible by a locale in which blacks are the majority of the citizens, yet fixing things is not a matter of simply electing more black politicians.

The usual racial melodramas of black vs. white are thus not the crude affairs they have tended to be in most movies and television. Race, for example, cannot be reduced to a problem of “racism.” It is inseparable from class, the plague of drugs, the decline of work and the failures of government, education and media. Nevertheless, the series tantalizingly holds out the hope of change, the hope of a better social justice. Indeed, it is simultaneously animated by the quest for this justice and deeply cynical about its achievement. A profound understanding of education both in and out of school makes learning, as it should be, the key to change while a distinctive rootedness in the specific locality of Baltimore gives the series a social solidity lacking in any other work on television.

Many television critics and journalists, not to mention the President of the United States, have cited The Wire as the best television series ever. And many of these evaluations extol the serial’s “novelistic” length and complexity. Journalist Joe Klein claims in the DVD features on the final episode that “The Wire should win the Nobel Prize for literature!” Simon himself calls the work a “visual novel” (though sometimes also a Greek tragedy). Literary critics, such as Walter Benn Michaels, have followed suit. In a lament about the failure of the American novel to tell stories that matter to the neoliberal present, Michaels has claimed that The Wire is the “most serious and ambitious fictional narrative of the twenty-first century.” Sociologists Anmol Chaddha and William Julius Wilson also see the series as literature, arguing that it “is part of a long line of literary works that are often able to capture the complexity of urban life in ways that have eluded many social scientists.” They cite novelists Richard Wright, Italo Calvino and Charles Dickens as models, while Michaels cites Emile Zola and Theodore Dreiser.

The series has the ability, like Dickens, Wright, Zola and Dreiser, to give dramatic resonance to a wide range of interconnected social strata, and the different behaviors and speech of these strata over broad swaths of world and time. Yet at the same instance it seems feeble to describe The Wire as our greatest novel (never written), or, as Fredric Jameson does, to extol its “refusal to be ‘realist’ in the traditional mimetic and replicative sense.” Like the comparison to Greek tragedy, much of this praise borrows a literary prestige that corresponds to the series’ excellence but not closely enough to its actual serial television cultural form. Before making these more exalted comparisons, then, it may help to see how The Wire grew and what it grew out of — first as a form of journalism, then out of the conventional melodrama of crime genres and soaps.

If I find this particular television serial exceptional, it will not be my intention to laud its exceptionality as a rare flowering in the “wasteland” of television, for television today is hardly a wasteland. Nor is it my intention to follow the lead of its prime mover, David Simon, who has certainly created great television but is not a particularly insightful critic of his own work. Rather, in seeking to articulate what is so exceptional about The Wire, I shall argue that it is first necessary to appreciate what is conventional about it: seriality, televisuality and melodrama.

David Simon, creator/writer/producer of The Wire

For twelve years, David Simon worked as a journalist digging increasingly deeper for social context. But he quit the newspaper business in anger — accepting a buyout with a substantial severance package even though he was offered a raise to stay on — and began writing imaginative teleplays for the television series Homicide, or so the story goes. In both of these apprenticeships, Simon absorbed a craft of writing that would serve him well in the leap into the less well-charted territory of The Wire.

Although The Wire may be sui generis it does not transcend its mass culture bases in city desk journalism and television melodrama; rather it is woven out of this very cloth: And the fundamental warp of this cloth is the (sometimes preachy) journalism Simon practiced at the Baltimore Sun and his long form “new journalism” with novelistic gestures, culminating in the experiment of his mini-series dramatization of the lives of real people in The Corner. Its weft is fictional story-telling based on fact, which episodes of Homicide and The Corner awkwardly negotiate, but which The Wire, breaking more completely with the righteous tone of editorializing journalism, weaves together perfectly.

Out of the warp and weft of the non-fictional and the fictional elements of this cloth, Simon expanded his craft into the 60 hours of serial television that constitutes The Wire.

The genius of this series was thus neither, as Simon might see it, a rebellion against journalistic or televisual constraints but a slow genesis that learned a great deal from the form and discipline of these fundamentally melodramatic forms of mass culture.

The Wire is often called a modern tragedy. But I totally disagree. While the series is obviously a generic “cop show,” it is clear that it is also something more. David Simon would like that something more to be tragedy. I argue instead that it is superior serial melodrama. Simon writes: “We have ripped off the Greeks: Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripedes….We’ve basically taken the idea of Greek tragedy, and applied it to the modern city-state.” Instead of the Olympians, “it’s the postmodern institutions…those are the indifferent gods.” Simon’s claims are borne out by many examples but perhaps the most important connection to tragedy, and especially to Greek tragedy, is the constant theme of injustice. Tragic heroes may rail against injustice, but in the end they must accept it. This is not what The Wire does. It is much more concerned, as all melodrama is, with finding a more immediate, less cosmic justice. Melodramatic heroes suffer injustice; sometimes they overcome it by brave deeds and sometimes they simply show their virtue by continuing to suffer. But The Wire’s greater accomplishment is developing something more ambitious than the conventional melodrama we love to deride. Melodrama demands justice while tragedy reconciles to its lack. But justice itself, as we soon learn, does not consist of catching dope dealers or solving homicides. Nor does it consist of thwarting surveillance on the side of the victimized “robbers” — such that the “good guys” and the “bad” are simply reversed. Rather, it consists of the larger question of what might be an equitable and just society in which dope and homicide would not be central activities. Real justice, we are allowed to imagine, would consist of genuine, creative work, democratic governance, education with “soft eyes” and better stories about them all.

However, if it is the demand for justice, in the stark face of its frequent failure, that draws Simon to the form of tragedy (and that causes him to make some of his more exalted claims for the series), it is the concern for those who suffer the failures of justice that keep us coming back to the series.

We are made to care about those who strive and those who suffer the injustice of neoliberal institutions. The “base” melodrama of crime drama is not “transcended” by the higher form of tragedy in The Wire. Indeed, one key to understanding the greatness of the series lies in the spectacular tussle of these two forms: one world-weary, screaming futilely against the injustice of the universe, the other reaching for the virtue of suffering innocence to restore the good “home” of America’s past. Dramatizing both the necessity for, and the difficulty of, reform within each of the major institutions portrayed, The Wire’s melodrama operates at both the personal and the institutional level. It is the meshing of the individual and the institutional that allows it to picture the political and social totality of what ails contemporary urban America and imagines what justice could be. No other television series or film “franchise” has accomplished this feat.

What is the relation between real learning and surveillance? Who has the benefit of “soft eyes” and what does race have to do with the larger melodramas that are told? Police are “up on a wire” when they have court permission to listen in to private phone conversations. To “wear a wire” is to have even more ability to collect incriminating evidence. The lure of surveillance as a quick fix to crime keeps the cops tantalized throughout all five seasons of the series. If only they had this newest gadget, they imagine, they could catch and punish the criminals. Ultimately, however, the figure of the wire encompasses something altogether richer, deeper and critically at the heart of our highly “disciplined” society than the CSI-style glamour of so many police procedurals. For on the other side of “the wire” are the corner boys and kingpins who observe the discipline of avoiding all forms of communication which might be “wired” and thus thwart the electronic quest to pry with “hard eyes” into the lives of drug traffickers.

Still of character Roland Pryzbylewski

Over and over we see that the best police work done in the series is not the hard intrusive look of surveillance, but the “soft eyes” which can build a different and a better kind of knowledge. Indeed, one of the greatest features of The Wire is its exploration of when and how people really learn, in a re-conception of the generic “school melodrama.” In Season 4 former cop and rookie teacher Roland Pryzbylewski is given a single piece of advice by a veteran teacher: “You need soft eyes.” As it plays out throughout this season this enigmatic advice begins to establish an alternative to the prying “hard eyes” of police surveillance and ultimately a better way to learn. As Detective Bunk Moreland demonstrates through his practice of police work, “soft eyes” can take in subtle, seemingly peripheral forms of information and creatively process them to successful effect. This is a kind of learning that represents the opposite of The Wire’s technological fix. It can only grow out of a perceptive, intimate experience of a given situation. It finds its greatest expression, in and out of the classroom, over the course of a fourth season that revolves around Tilghman Middle School.

The fact that this series is the only dramatic narrative in television or film to proceed from a world in which “integration” is not a liberal fantasy of “tolerant” interaction, but a necessary, if uneasy cohabitation. Indeed, it is the presumption of a certain black power base and what sociologist George Lipsitz calls a “black spatial imaginary,” what I also call a black linguistic imaginary with special eloquence and cultural power. What is thus refreshingly missing from the series, and what gives it its edge, is any assumption of de-ethnicized whiteness as a cultural or political norm. However corrupt or righteous this black political and cultural power base may be, it is the ground from which all else proceeds. This non-idealized “integration” that still manifests itself in the street gangs and in the schools as segregation, renders black culture the center rather than the margin of experience, and makes the acknowledgment of race necessary in practical political ways that the liberal ideology of colorblindness cannot countenance. It also paradoxically takes the burden off race as the key difference and renders the role of class much more visible than it usually is in American television or film. Most importantly it rewrites the conventional melodrama of black and white that has been dominant in American culture since Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Still of Omar Little. “All in the game’

This long-running melodrama is manifest in powerful cycles of racial feelings acted out in mass culture and major media events going back to the most popular novel and play of the mid-nineteenth century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and to the most popular film of the early 20th century, Birth of a Nation. The “Tom/anti-Tom” antinomies contained in these two determining cases of moving-image mass culture have continued to play out in American culture. But they encounter in The Wire a decidedly new turn.

Institutional rather than personal melodrama, world-building seriality grounded in a black spatial imaginary results among other things in the construction of new kind of hero — the elusive and ubiquitous robber of drug stashes, Omar Little — who poses a relevant answer to the “magic negro” of the white spatial imaginary.


Excerpted from On the Wire by Linda Williams, published by Duke University Press on August 8, 2014. It is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or your local independent.

Linda Williams is a professor at UC Berkeley, where she teaches courses on popular moving-image genres (pornography, melodrama, and “body genres” of all sorts).

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