Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Nathan Holmes reviews Linda Williams’s On The Wire

Linda Williams. On The Wire. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2014. 280 pp. Hardcover $84.95. Paperback $23.95.

Reviewed by Nathan Holmes

One of On The Wire’s many accomplishments is to rescue the HBO series from creator David Simon. Simon has described The Wire (2002–2008) as a realist tragedy, and much critical discourse has ascribed a sui generis status to the program that attempts to distance it from the morass of network crime TV. In perspicuous prose, Linda Williams cuts through the torrent of scholarly commentary on the series to show that the provenance of The Wire’s penetrating and panoramic vision of urban injustice is in fact located in codes of genre, televisual seriality, and the melodramatic, rather than tragic, mode. She begins by tracing the development of Simon’s style through his features for The Baltimore Sun, his work on Homicide: Life on the Street (1993–1999) and the HBO special The Corner (2000). Through fits and starts, Williams demonstrates, Simon marshaled a relationship between materials and form, converting the putative constraint of television’s segmentation and flow into rhythmic procedures that could enable the “multi-sited ethnography” (Williams’ term is more satisfying than the more often used “cognitive mapping”) of the neoliberal city via the genre of police procedural. “The Wire is not a formal outlier,” Williams writes, “It is TV in the most basic rhythmic sense of the dialectic between flow and segment, part and gap” (p. 69).  The ability of The Wire to move between vastly differentiated social groups and institutional settings is, in turn, supported by the long-form seriality endowed by cable television, allowing the show “world enough and time” (a phrase Williams borrows from Andrew Marvell’s poem “His Coy Mistress”) to develop an array of intersecting storylines, sites, and characters at the levels of episode, season, and series.

A disinclination to link the success of The Wire to its televisual inheritance has been matched by a consistent framing of the series, by Simon and others, in the culturally elevated terms of realism and tragedy, obscuring its latent melodrama. In Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson (2001), and across a number of essays, Williams has labored to disclose the persistence of a melodramatic mode within American media culture and racial politics, exploring both its denigration and its pernicious role within a ping ponging calculus of racial injury (recent eruptions, and increased media coverage, of white against black violence have perhaps irrevocably altered this field). For Williams, however, The Wire renews and reconfigures the ethical and political possibilities of the melodramatic mode. While tragedy and realism are the preferred forms for labeling the types of drama that deal with modern injustice, they’re ill-fitting for The Wire. Tragedy, because it is focused on extraordinary forms of suffering, is unsuited to the rather ordinary, structural injustice tracked through Baltimore’s streets and institutional corridors, never mind that fatefulness has the effect of smothering aspirations toward justice. As for realism, Williams reiterates a point made in Playing the Race Card: “new kinds of realistic contents do not nullify melodrama but innovate it” (p. 111). Following Williams in pursuit of the protean melodramatic mode exemplified by The Wire however, requires perceiving a new type of melodrama without stylistic excess, conclusive retributive justice, a Manichean moral economy, and, most importantly, the holistically virtuous individual. As important as individual characters are to the series—from Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and Bubbles (Andre Royo) to Omar (Michael Kenneth Williams) and Snoop (Felicia Pearson)—the leaner “institutional melodrama” of The Wire calibrates itself to modern urban neoliberalism by examining how the desiccated institutions of law enforcement, education, journalism, and even drug dealing, are simply unable to recognize “good”—good “po-lice,” effective teachers, worthy journalism, honorable street players. Virtue is present in those institutionally embedded individuals that have developed “soft eyes” and are able to advance their civic commitments within organizational precarity, but, as viewers of the series know, such virtue never carries the day. Instead, given serial television’s world enough and time, an overarching and repeated sense of injustice builds in our shared plasma glare, and it becomes impossible not to ask for something better.

As Williams recognizes at the book’s outset, The Wire sits at the center of what is widely acknowledged as a golden age for television. But seven years after the series’ end it seems germane to ask, given the ever growing list of deteriorating institutions ripe for dramatization and a new wave of challenges to American law enforcement, what films or TV shows have attempted to replicate The Wire’s formal and thematic ingenuity? (Simon’s follow-up, Treme [2010-2013], set in post-Katrina New Orleans, seemed more dedicated to its creator’s stated interests in the tragic.) By tying The Wire’s forcefulness to its televisual and melodramatic nature, On The Wire reveals that however exceptional, this show can also be a model. As such, this book modestly saves the series from monumentality.