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On The Wire

© 2014 Duke University Press
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Cover art: Still from The Wire.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-­

in-­Publication Data
Williams, Linda, 1946–
On the Wire / Linda Williams.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-8223-5706-3 (cloth : alk. paper)
ISBN 978-0-8223-5717-9 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Wire (Television program).  I. Title.
PN1992.77.W53 W52  2014

Acknowledgments vii
Introduction 1

PART I. World Enough and Time: The Genesis and Genius of The Wire

1 Ethnographic Imagination: From Journalism to Television Serial 11

2 Serial Television’s World and Time: The Importance of the “Part” 37

PART II. Justice in The Wire: Tragedy, Realism, and Melodrama

3 “Classical” Tragedy, or . . . 79

4 Realistic, Modern Serial Melodrama 107

PART III. Surveillance, Schoolin’, and Race

5 Hard Eyes / Soft Eyes: Surveillance and Schoolin’ 139

6 Feeling Race: The Wire and the American Melodrama of Black and
White 173

Conclusion: Home Sweet Baltimore 211

notes 223
bibliography 247
index 255

I owe thanks to three different classes on The Wire that I was fortunate
to teach at UC Berkeley after the series ended. The first was a senior
seminar that also served as my own initiation into television studies.
The second was a large lecture class whose discussion sessions were ex-
tremely helpful to this book. The third was a graduate seminar on serial
television featuring The Wire as a case study in which I tried out some
of the ideas on seriality and melodrama. Many insights were sparked by
the students in these classes and in countless discussions with friends.
Special thanks go to three wonderful research assistants and editors:
Jonathan Lee (who led the way), Kelsa Trom (wise beyond her years),
and Irene Chien (without whom I would still be mired in research). I
am also indebted to Christine Borden, who taught me the importance of
Simon’s journalism; Nikhil Krishnan, who understood the lure of tech-
nology; Mallory Russell, who counted many beats; Zeynep Gürsel, who
knew about ethnography; Maryam Monalisa Gharavi and Catherine
Zimmer, who were both smart about surveillance; and Elisabeth Anker,
who told me to keep my eye on the series itself. I dedicate this book
to all of these friends, colleagues, and students who showed me new
facets of the series. Especially heartfelt thanks go to the three people
who first made me watch The Wire: Edith Kramer, J. P. Gorin, and Quinn

But to tell the truth, I no longer watch many

films. . . . I feed my hunger for fiction with what is by
far the most accomplished source: those terrific American TV
series like Deadwood, Firefly, or The Wire. . . . There is a knowledge
in them, a sense of story and economy, of ellipsis, a science of
framing and of cutting, a dramaturgy, and an acting style that
has no equal anywhere, and certainly not in Hollywood.
—Chris Marker, La Jetée / Sans Soleil DVD booklet

Who knew that the movie business would disappear. It disappeared

instantaneously. . . . There will be festival films, there will be a way to live,
where a movie like ‘[Michael] Clayton’ gets made if you get a movie star like
[George] Clooney to waive his fee, there will be exceptions for decades. But
as a rule, the middle class drama, ambitious drama, it’s on TV. Everybody
knows that, it’s why TV is so great right now, they’ve got it.
—Tony Gilroy, The Playlist website

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 eve-
ning 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 weekly on
hbo from 2002 to 2008, but ran in a more concentrated, nightly form
on my bedroom tv from 2007 to 2008. By the time I finished watch-
ing, I was more than a fan—I was a convert. The project of this book is
to understand to what I had been converted.
Through the microcosm of one decaying American city, The Wire re-
veals the interconnected truths of many institutional failures: a ram-
pant drug trade that police cannot curtail, the devaluation of work mea-
sured in declining unions, a cynical city government that raises and then
crushes the hope of reform, the poignant waste of schools and the fail-
ure 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 out-
comes, 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 versus 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 simul-
taneously 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.
During and after the series’ run, many television critics, not to men-
tion the president of the United States, cited The Wire as the best tele-
vision series ever.1 Many other critics claimed it transcended the very
form of television. Journalist Joe Klein claimed in the dvd commentary
on the final episode that, “The Wire should win the Nobel Prize for lit-

2 Introduction
erature!” Simon himself called the work a “visual novel”2 (though just
as often a Greek tragedy). Literary critics such as Walter Benn Michaels
have followed Simon’s lead. In a lament about the failure of the Ameri-
can 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.”3 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 scien-
tists.”4 They cite novelists Richard Wright, Italo Calvino, and Charles
Dickens as models, while Michaels cites Émile Zola and Theodore
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 replica-
tive sense.”5 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.6 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.
Although 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 as both my epigraphs indicate, tele-
vision today is hardly a wasteland. Nor is it my intention to follow the
lead of The Wire’s 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.
For twelve years David Simon worked as a journalist digging in-
creasingly deeper for social context. But he quit the newspaper busi-
ness in anger—accepting a buyout with a substantial severance pack-

Introduction 3
age even though he was offered a raise to stay on—and began writing
imaginative teleplays for the television series Homicide. 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
A key first argument of this book will thus be that 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 along with long-form “new journalism” with novelistic ges-
tures, culminating in the experiment of his miniseries 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 nonfictional and the fic-
tional elements of this cloth, Simon expanded his craft into the sixty
hours of serial television that constitutes The Wire. The genius of this
series was thus neither, as Simon saw it, a novelistic rebellion against
journalistic or televisual constraints but a slow genesis that learned a
great deal from the discipline of these fundamentally melodramatic
forms of mass culture.
A second part of the book takes up the most common praise given
The Wire—that it is a modern tragedy—and turns it on its head. While
the series is obviously a generic “cop show,” clearly 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.”7 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 their
fate. This, I argue, is not what The Wire does. It is much more concerned,

4 Introduction
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. The two chapters in this section are about The Wire’s attempt
to be “classical” tragedy and its ironically greater accomplishment in de-
veloping something more ambitious than the conventional melodrama
we love to deride. Melodrama demands justice, while tragedy recon-
ciles us 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. 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, edu-
cation 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. I will argue that the “base”
melodrama of crime drama is not “transcended” by the higher form
of tragedy in The Wire. Indeed, one key to understanding the great-
ness 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. I argue that it is the meshing of the individual and the institutional
that allows it to picture the political and social totality of what ails con-
temporary urban America and to imagine what justice could be. No
other television series or film “franchise” has accomplished this feat.
A final section of the book asks about the relation between real learn-
ing and surveillance. Who has the benefit of “soft eyes,” and what does
race have to do with the larger melodramas told? Police are “up on a
wire” when they have court permission to listen in to private phone

Introduction 5
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 encom-
passes something altogether richer, something deeper and critically at
the heart of our highly “disciplined” society, than one finds in 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 that might be “wired” and thus
thwart the electronic quest to pry with “hard eyes” into the lives of drug
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 better kind of knowledge. Indeed, one of the great-
est features of The Wire is its exploration of when and how people really
learn, in a reconception of the familiar “school melodrama” of heroic
teachers. In season 4 former cop and rookie teacher Roland Pryzbylew-
ski is given a single piece of advice by a veteran teacher: “You need soft
eyes” (4.2). As it plays out throughout this season, this enigmatic advice
begins to establish an alternative to the prying “hard eyes” of police sur-
veillance and ultimately a better way to learn. As Detective Bunk More-
land demonstrates through his own practice of police work, “soft eyes”
can take in subtle, seemingly peripheral forms of information and cre-
atively 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.
A final chapter begins with the fact that this series is the only dramatic
narrative in television or film to proceed from a world in which “inte-
gration” 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 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

6 Introduction
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. It renders black culture the center rather than the mar-
gin of experience and makes the acknowledgment of race necessary in
practical political ways that the liberal ideology of “colorblindness” can-
not 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.8
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 the most popular film of the early twentieth 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 in The Wire they encounter a de-
cidedly 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.

Introduction 7

1. In the last minute of a podcast interview conducted by Bill Simmons on
March 1, 2012, an interview otherwise devoted to basketball, President Obama
was asked to “settle an office debate” by naming the “Best Wire character of all
time.” His answer—“It’s got to be Omar, right?” was backed up by the state-
ment “And that was one of the best shows of all time.” Simmons, “B.S. Report
Transcript: Barack Obama.”
2. Indeed, at one point he even goes so far as to compare his achievement to
Moby-­Dick, with police procedural substituting for whale procedural. Simon,
“Introduction,” 25.
3. Michaels calls it “the most serious and ambitious fictional narrative of the
twenty-­first century so far.” Walter Benn Michaels, “Going Boom.”
4. Chaddha and Wilson, “‘Way Down in the Hole,’ ” 163.
5. Jameson, “Realism and Utopia,” 368.
6. As Jason Mittell has passionately argued, “Television at its best shouldn’t
be understood simply as emulating another older and more culturally valued
medium. The Wire is a masterpiece of television . . . and thus should be under-
stood, analyzed, and celebrated on its own medium’s terms.” Mittell, “All in
the Game,” 429.
7. Talbot, “Stealing Life.”
8. See Williams, Playing the Race Card.

Chapter 1: Ethnographic Imagination

1. Falzon, Multi-­Sited Ethnography, 1.
2. Lanahan, “Secrets of the City,” 24.
3. Williams would later play the Deacon in this series.