Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 10


of Constructing Television Realism

In Lieu of Introduction thoughts preceding the topic

John Fiske and John Hartly in their discussion on realism point to the oral mode of constructing
so-called reality, by detecting language as a primary agent in its production of reality, due to the
fact that the real itself is always mediated through structure of language. However, this mediation
is not only a filter, it does not only distort, but in fact, it represents the social process through
which the real is made.1 They speak about the second nature of the real, the mode that society
operates in where the signs for reality become the real thing i.e. social contract of the dominating
sense of reality. The authors stress that television follows the oral principle, therefore, in this
sense, reality mediated through global media networks should be understood as an extension of
social relations established in our society. That is to say that the issue of the production of this
reality does not concern only the realm of the television imaginary - traditionally discussed from
the point of view of realism as an artistic method - but rather it takes into question the real of
the society itself mediated through global mass media. What brings together notions of the real
and the imaginary of television is televisual continuity and the fact that both journalism and
aesthetics are part of the same flow, sharing the same expressive means of the medium which
functions on the principles of globalization and capitalism. Generally speaking, intersections
between series of social realism and journalism could be noted on two levels of both content and
form. Their common content relates to the representation of ongoing social and political
processes while the form, i.e. aesthetics, are often subordinated to the impression of immediacy
or naturalistic representation. However, the idea of this essay is not to compare journalism and
aesthetics, but rather to note how the method of creation of imaginary realism in the nineties
differs from the contemporary method. I would venture to say that contemporary journalism, in
some way, took over the aesthetics of imaginary realism, while the contemporary series largely
relies on film language. Homicide: Life on the Street is a great starting point for such analysis since
its general look and feel could be labeled as pure aesthetics of realism managed through its
formal appearance - camera movement, jump cut editing, natural lightning and use of 16mm film
are all contributing to its sensation of immediacy. On the other hand, The Wires strategy of
dilatation of narrative time and space, indeed, creates the feeling of simultaneity of real and
narrative time, whereas its discourse offers a distance to the spectator to take his/her own stance

1 John Fiske and John Hartley, Reading Television, p129

toward the given content. With its narrative and formal strategies, The Wire, in spite of all
conventions of the medium (production of realism), which will be discussed, is somewhat
exceptional, precisely because of its re-reading of the media content which nowadays operates
within a similar manner as aesthetics of realism previously employed in Homicide, an imaginary
television format. The idea I am suggesting relates to the fact that nowadays it is rather
impossible to create media and narrative content that performs outside of a dominant system of
representation, driven by bourgeois and capitalist logic. Moreover, a mash-up of means of
expression creates hybrid formats and therefore prevents any type of specific categorization of
contemporary genres. What happens is that contemporary journalism seems to coincide with
sheer fiction 2 while imaginary formats like The Wire seem to coincide with high-quality
Common Motifs and Merging of Narrative worlds, Imaginary of Baltimore - Homicide: Life on the
Street and The Wire

Homicide is the starting point for the creation of The Wire in many ways. Firstly, both of the series
in question share the field of interest that refers to the depiction of lives of detectives and daily
challenges they encounter. Baltimore, a worldwide known city for its high-level crime rate,
represents the imaginary conceived in Homicide and afterwards extended and developed in The
Wire. The most interesting aspect of this intersection between the series is the common casting
choices of both the detectives and many supporting roles. This serves to suggest the intertwining
of the two worlds. In that parallel and imagined universe of Baltimore, characters could be
recognized as denizens of the city of Baltimore, where the time span of a few years between the
two productions facilitates the impression that many characters actually continued their lives in
the meanwhile. For instance, detective Laura Ballard (Homicide) became the wife of Jimmy
McNulty while we could believe that detective Meldrick Lewis changed his career path and turned
out to be a city desk editor of The Baltimore Sun. This speculation, of course, is not grounded in
fact, but I am stressing that this strategy might be effective among spectators who watched both
of the shows, and therefore it supports the impression of continuity, which goes hand in hand
with television realism. Furthermore, both of the programs share many elements and motifs such
as: the interrogation room, the bar where detectives spend time after work, treatment of dead

2 Stefan Jonsson, Facts of Aesthetics and Fictions of Journalism, The Logic of the Media in
the Age of Globalization

bodies, and even the motif of the board used for highlighting cases as black or red. Precisely
these common motifs are useful as starting points in order to compare their usage and
understand how The Wire has improved their representation. For instance, the board in Homicide
is an over-exploited motif, used to emphasize an investigation outcome and as a sort of suspense
engine - every episode introduces red names in the beginning and therefore triggers spectators
attention towards the process of the investigation. On the other hand, The Wire hired the board
motif only in the second season, in the case of murders of East-European prostitutes. Its initial
usage was rather similar to Homicides, to convey how difficult an assignment it is to resolve
numerous murders of Jane Does. Yet the Wire employs the board as an element of a more
sophisticated plot device a kind of MacGuffin depicting systematic analysis of corrupted trade
in the Baltimore Harbor, while the case of deceased prostitutes was not actually in focus. In
addition, the treatment of language in Homicide is more common and formal, while The Wire
pays more attention to detail by employing convincing slang, yet it is important to note that
the use of language in The Wire is not in service only of the street realm, but all the
characters speak in a natural manner. That is to say, that all of the characters within the series
use language in accordance with their professional and social habitat. Exactly in The Wires
paying attention to detail3, with regards to its naturalistic representation of reality, is where
the fundamental difference between the two programs dwells. It could be said that Homicide
was made with an urge to create a new television expression, to find a new and appealing form
for a cop show, nowadays embraced by news channels. On the contrary, The Wire fought a
different kind of a battle, creating discourse through the use of film language, which ultimately
opposes the dominant representation of reality mediated through mass media.

Two Methods of Realism Structuring - Real Documentary Look VS Dramatic Look

David Simon, the writer of Homicide: Life on the Street and creator of The Corner and The Wire,
dedicated his more than twenty-year TV career to creating the imaginary of Baltimore. Homicide,
the first TV project he had worked on, won over its viewers by its peculiar realist aesthetics.
Expressive means that Homicide employs fit into John Fiskes description of a formal method of
producing realism, described as the real documentary look. What characterizes this type of
approach, besides the already abovementioned formal elements, is a construction of social space
of the fiction, a social space which is more than simply a background, but which, in a sense,

3 John Fiske, Television culture

constitutes what the documentary drama wishes to be about, the document which is to be
dramatized4. Indeed, in Homicide, Baltimores real criminal context is exploited in order to
generate the uncanny atmosphere of the show. Basically, the city serves as a background - a city
driven by social struggle and crime, employed as an engine of the series. Homicide interprets the
status quo of society through its superficial representation of social and professional
relationships. That is to say, Baltimore is a toponym in service of the dark tone of the series.
Despite of its documentary-like aesthetics, situations and dialogues are highly staged and all of
them subordinated to the impression of immediacy. In fact, the narrative strategy of the show is
somewhat naive in regard to its insisting on no script impression and nowness, which alternates
between dialogues related to an ongoing case that needs to be resolved and spontaneous
unrelated conversation. For example, a scene begins with spontaneous dialogues about
newspaper articles and then it clumsily gets interrupted by the narrative line of the ongoing
On the other hand, The Wire establishes a more complex and a more sophisticated narrative
strategy, essentially reflected in its dilatation of narrative time and space - the narrative content
that usually fits one episode, in The Wire corresponds to the whole season. What is more, its
narrative space extends to a variety of new realms, including the street and crime, which in
Homicide serves only as a background, as a social context that serves to provide cases for
detectives. Besides, Homicide functions on a traditional case per episode mechanism where the
established format of 45-minute episodes becomes the self-limiting factor of the series. In that
self-limitation the context of production has a prevailing role. Having been produced by NBC a
television network financially dependent on its commercial advertisements - Homicide, despite its
potential, was reduced to the mere fulfillment of purpose, to fit predetermined program
categories and televisual continuity. In that sense, the production framework of Homicide
resembles news production formats, which are subordinated to applicability and usefulness,
therefore impairing the non-identical. On the other hand, HBO the cable network that produced
The Wire despite functioning on the same capitalist principles, has rather different business
politics.5 Most of their income is provided through subscribers fees and precisely because of its
independent stance the network is able to produce advanced quality programs. Indeed, quality
does not stand for plausibility and radicalism in relation to dominant ideology, but rather implies

4 John Fiske, Television culture, p28
5 In my humble opinion, the contradiction of capitalism resides in its ability to produce
quality, although, that quality is always a result of the market share race and profit.

a detailed business strategy and a variety of products. This allowed the creation of The Wire, the
social realist drama that fits into the description of what John Fisk calls progressive social
realism6. The fundamental feature of progressive realism relates to its avoiding of viewers direct
identification with the given content by employing distancing techniques and ensuring him/her a
more or less objectifying position. The most effective among these techniques concerns The
Wires cleverness of how attachment and divorce towards characters is conducted. As professor
Marsha Kinder notes, the protagonist of the series is the city of Baltimore and its institutions
subjected to systematic analysis of corruption7. The Wires analytic intention going hand in hand
with critical distance8 - is somewhat contradictory to the concept of character identification.
Indeed, we deeply sympathize with the protagonists, whereas the narrative is conducted in such a
manner that the established emotional relationship between spectator and character breaks on
time, therefore the series successfully avoids falling into the realm of soap opera. In addition,
representation of the personal lives of detectives largely concerns their identity as police
professionals their moral dilemmas are in concordance with the ethical aspect of the series. For
instance, nocturnal conversations of McNulty and Bunk are most often prolongations of daily
events, meaning that the series always remains in the domain of its specifically defined interest.
On the other hand, Homicide immensely relies on character identification and their personal
affairs, their charisma is highly emphasized although their motivations are not profoundly
elaborated. Accordingly, their dialogues and hence their personalities are only in service of the
documentary look realism. However, expressive means that The Wire hires are film language-like.
Shot/reverse shot mechanism, linear editing, eye-line and action match are the elements that The
Wire has in common with, so called, narrative realist film9. This approach to realism John Fiske
describes as dramatic look realism, whose confirmation of dominating ideology resides in its
formal strategies and representing life as natural, continuous and making the director as invisible
as possible10. The show definitely constructs the feeling of a natural flow, especially with the aid
of its time-stretching technique which brings it closer to our general sense of time, and therefore
gives the impression of simultaneity of real and narrative time. Formal elements of The Wire
correspond to the production of realism, but its analytic discourse focused on representation of

6 John Fiske, Television Culture, p29
7 Marsha Kinder, Re-Wiring Baltimore: The Emotive Power of Systemics, Seriality and
the City
8 Marsha Kinder, Re-Wiring Baltimore: The Emotive Power of Systemics, Seriality and
the City
9 John Fiske, Television Culture, p27
10 John Fiske, Television Culture, p25

processes and procedures, i.e. the content, is what makes this program remarkable. Besides of the
abovementioned strategy of protagonist detachment, use of the majority of supporting roles as
impersonal (but corrupted) public figures is also a significant technique. The didactic aspect of
the show resides in its uncovering of principles based on which our society operates, if not with
complete plausibility, then with far more credibility that contemporary journalism does. Its
analytic approach to corruption, work processes, power relations (reflected in the manner of how
social agreements are made), is depicted through distancing dialogues that are used to transmit
knowledge. The dialogues in question are of know-how type of conversations, liberated of
emotional commitment. They force us to participate due to the mere fact that many of the
procedures which The Wire depicts are not known to an average viewer, and they demand our
attention in order to grasp its mechanisms. Finally, the capitalist ideology is metaphorically
presented through the concept of the game, a kind of game that you cannot win, but which
imprisons persons forever. It is a kind of never-ending circle, which denies individual freedom, it
announces an individual forced to compromise morally 11 by rendering it as a necessary personal
feature for surviving within the contemporary society. This game concept, together with the chain
of command principle, is the most important issue raised by The Wire. Whereas at the same time
it represents its weakness, because the game taken as universal concept serves as a narrative and
formal engine that employs parallel editing in order to claim that the same type of game is
embodied within every realm presented.

It is important to take into consideration both of the series that have preceded The Wire in which
David Simon took great part. Homicide and its portrayal of the police world of Baltimore had been
socially extended by hiring the new narrative world of The Corner, a mini-series focused on street
life and individual experiences of drug addicts, drug dealers and other marginalized (mostly
African-American) citizens of Baltimore. The Corner is a melancholic representation of the post
black pride movement generation drifting through the streets - some of them hustling around,
while others are victimized for their brothers hustle. Not only does this kind of social critique
emerge in The Wire, but it also announces a new generation of African-Americans and the
contemporary issue of how the rap music has become the trap music. This extended critique is
achieved through the chain of command principle, but the chain of command of the other half of

11 John Kraniauskas, Elasticity of Demand, Reflections on The Wire

the city where human lives dont count, where women are mistreated and where even the
traditional concept of gangster brotherhood doesnt exist anymore. This phenomenon can be
seen in the relationship between Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale, where Avon presents a
criminal still loyal to family values, while Stringer is an ambitious, self-complacent individual.
On the other hand, social extension is achieved also through an analytic approach of the dominant
public sphere, where social relations driven by money and interest prevail. This demystification
of the concept of the American dream allows the spectator to take a critical stance toward not
only US but toward every nation state. However, establishment of such analogy and the mirroring
effect established between these two worlds is somewhat problematic. It encourages looping
narrative techniques, hence, treatment of every new institution introduced seems to work within
the same narrative engine established in the first season of the series. Through this looping effect,
highly dependent on parallel editing, reality is not only produced, but it is given sense to.

The Question of Meta-Discourse or Why The Wire Could Not Be Subscribed to the Notion of the

MacCabes theory stresses the power of realism, even when dealing with radical content, to leave
viewers always in a reactionary frame of mind because its form enables them to use the dominant
ideology to make dominant sense of a radical movement and thus to defuse its radicalism. 12

The production of reality concerns the form of realism and by way of positioning the spectator
within the text. Despite already discussed distancing techniques that The Wire hires, its form,
although progressive, still corresponds to established formal means of realism, whose activation
occurs with the assistance of spectators participation. This unspoken discourse relying on
viewers cognitive processes is what MacCabe calls the meta-discourse, the discourse which
confirms a dominating sense of reality by employing laws of cause and effect where every element
is there for the purpose of helping make sense13. Although advanced, narrative methods of The Wire
are precisely used for this sense-making, its final episode fulfills spectators desire for an
explanation of every issue raised by putting to an end all the narrative lines. Yet, the progressive
aspect of the show refers to the non-existence of a happy-ending, because in the end all the efforts
to thwart the system prove to be useless. We learn that not only is the administration machinery

12 John Fiske, Television Culture, p34
13 John Fiske, Television Culture, p24

reigned by corruption, but, that every individual, willing to struggle against it, eventually is
swallowed by that same machinery. However, the failure of their endeavor is not the focus, but
rather the process of characters moral decay or self-restraint, which further stimulates
development of action. The final episode depicts tragic epilogue, in which those in power increase
their power, while McNulty and Freamon are forced to resign, stands in sharp contrast to the first
seasons optimistic tone where common struggle for a higher cause, i.e. decent police work, was
the key motif. Trajectory of their resignation correlates with the narratives systematic
development path from point A to point B, where at point A we are presented with a group of
individuals willing to fight the corrupted system, and at point B we are confronted with these
individuals losing their sense of togetherness, and finally being defeated by the system. This
rather clear and logical idea is what stimulates the whole imaginary of The Wire, which wouldnt
be that problematic if the series closure didnt pretend to resolve, underscore and finally seal all
the fates presented. Intention of closing the circle is what, I believe, corresponds to the cause and
effect principle, and our general insistence on exact determination of beginning and end of all life
processes. That is why the series, despite its progressiveness, cannot be subscribed to the notion
of the radical, since the radical stands for a kind of an approach that is able to call into question
the status quo; to motivate an individual not only to contemplate on social issues, but to
encourage him/her to act. In addition, the pessimistic closure of The Wire, despite successfully
acknowledging the disease of late-capitalism, in fact, naturalizes the status quo14 by suggesting
that nothing can be done about it, that by not accommodating to established social norms the
individual is condemned to social and thus symbolic death.
Meta-discourse, defined by MacCabe, represents an invisible scope within which ideology
operates, and which always presupposes the average spectator towards whom the program is
directed. The Wires average viewer is a rather sophisticated one, but still a middle class
individual who has probably already had a critical stance towards society and who is probably
frustrated in the same way that detective McNulty is. Thus, The Wires discourse asserts the
spectators state of mind and encourages him/her to accept reality. On the other hand, the
notion of subjective experience cannot be generalized, therefore I wouldnt stress that this
discernment of reality confirmation stands, because as Fiske notes, television text is relatively
open and its meanings are rather determined socially than textually15.

14 John Fiske, Television Culture, p33
15 John Fiske, Television Culture, p39


The idea behind this text is to compare the two ways of constructing TV realism, starting from the
concept of what reality actually is. Judging by John Fiske and John Hartley reality is inaccessible
because it is always mediated through language which creates the social convention of reality. If
we regard the TV medium as a reflection of mediated reality, we understand that what is depicted
on TV is always a construct, yet true because it complies with the social convention of reality. I
believe that these days it is important to view the TV medium as a whole, as a reflexion of society
regardless of its different formats simply because the development of media space, content and
form creates hybrid formats which we cannot with any certainty fit within traditional program
categories. Even though it is impossible to present the real picture through the TV medium and
motivate people to change it, we can present the reality of social convention. In other words,
there are programs whose objective it is to show how things really work, while others aim to
skew or simplify reality through interpretation. I am talking about programs with pretension of
truthfulness about them achieved by their formal expression such as realistic TV series which
present real life, and which is at the same time the goal of news programs. I believe that John
Fiskes comment about TV text being an open text is crucial because today the reception of
content to a great degree depends on the subject (viewer). I believe it is the subjects task to
perceive mediated reality integrally, yet selectively, in order to construct a whole picture of a
kind. Therefore, it is not important whether the program is a feature or a documentary, but
whether it contains an idea that relates to objective reality and communicates at the level above
the form through which the idea is presented.


1. John Fiske, Television culture (Chapters Realism, Realism and Ideology)

2. John Fiske and John Hartley, Reading Television (Chapter Television
3. Raymond Williams, Lecture on Realism
4. Helena Sheehan and Sheamus Sweeney, The Wire and the World:
narrative and metanarrative
5. John Kraniauskas, Elasticity of Demand, Reflections on The Wire
6. Marsha Kinder, Re-Wiring Baltimore: The Emotive Power of Systemics,
Seriality and the City
7. James Zborowski, The Rhetoric of the Wire
8. Stefan Jonsson, Facts of Aesthetics and Fictions of Journalism, The Logic
of the Media in the Age of Globalization
9. Jason Mittel, All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling, and
Procedural Logic