Linda Williams on The Wire

In today’s guest post, Linda Williams, Professor of Film Studies and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, writes about why she loves the HBO series The Wire. Her new book is On The Wire, the latest installment in our Spin Offs series.

WilliamsCoverSmallIn the fall of 2007, I was laid up in bed. For the first time in my life since childhood I had time to watch 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. The project of my book, On The Wire, has been to understand to what I had been converted.

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 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.

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.”
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 time 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. Instead, I argue that we should attend to how The Wire grew and what it grew out of—first as a form of journalism, then out of the conventional melodrama of crime genre. In seeking to articulate what is so exceptional about The Wire, I believe it is first necessary to appreciate what is conventional about it: seriality, televisuality and melodrama.

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