Like many fans of The Wire I have a fantasy of re-watching the entire series from beginning until the end. It is something that I will do someday, once I can clear my schedule enough for multiple nights on end of three hours plus of watching. Until then reading something like Linda Williams’ On The Wire is perhaps the next best thing. It makes it possible to revisit the series without revisiting the trials and tribulations of binge watching.
Williams is not just interested in offering some kind of trip of television nostalgia, there is, of course, an argument here. Williams’ is primarily concerned with the question of genre, and in doing so she takes on two of the things most often said about The Wire by its fans. The first, which is not directly an argument about genre, is the show’s supposed realism. Much could be said about this “reality effect,” the manor in which the show seems to convince many of the accuracy of a world that they will never know. It is easy to remember the show’s inclusion on the list of Stuff White People Like and dismiss it at that, but even the show’s label as realistic reveals something about the dark underside of the American imaginary. To say that the show is “realistic” is to say that it includes everything that is excluded from the dominant representation of the US. It is to admit that everything else, representations of cops and cities from the network dramas to the news, is fantasy. The second, and more substantial argument that is offered in terms of the show and genre is the claim that the show is a modern tragedy. This is a claim made not by its audience, but its creator. As David Simon states in an interview in TheBeliever, “But instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason."
Williams claim is that the show is a melodrama. At first I must admit that I found this claim off putting and confusing. Melodrama always brings to mind Douglas Sirk and technocolor pathos. Part of Williams' claim on this term, and her attempt to salvage it, has to do with the way in which the suffering of melodrama is always tied to the demand for justice. Unlike tragedy, in which fate is affirmed, and a cruel universe crushes those who would oppose it, melodrama only works if there is some affirmation of justice. Melodrama receives its pathos from the injustice of the world. Having said that, The Wire differs from a great deal of conventional melodrama. Virtue is not always rewarded and there are no benevolent uncles, inspirational teachers, or other heroes to rescue anyone. The Wire continually comes close to some of the clichés of melodrama, the white teacher in an inner city school, the cop seeking redemption, etc., only to subvert them at the last minute, affirming the indifference of the institution to the intentions of the individual. The Wire is both a moral story, a story of redemption and salvation for its characters and a story of the indifference of the world to such matters. The Wire does not so much fit into melodrama as a genre, but stretch it, giving us new heroes outside the realm of standard identifications, and new villains--less individualistic and more structural. As Williams’ writes, “The quest to recognize a good that is no longer self-evident in a neoliberal era is the dilemma of this series.”
It is perhaps because of this focus on recognition, on what is seen or not seen, that one of the stronger chapters of the book deals with the series engagement with surveillance and the politics of seeing and what is being seen. Williams’ juxtaposes the state surveillance, surveillance that is less total and encompassing than the image of the panopticon would suggest, against the idea of “soft eyes.” Soft eyes function as both a ideal of the detective, to be able to see something unexpected, beyond focus, and an ethical ideal, to see with sympathy. Linda Williams cites George Lipisitz, arguing that social problems are ultimately knowledge problems, problems of what is seen or known. The show offers several layers of this invisibility. First there is its very existence as a show, as an attempt to portray in some form, lives that are invisible within the dominant “white imaginary.” Within the show there is the constant tension between what is officially seen or heard through the various surveillance technologies, and what is invisible even to that penetrating eye. Many of the shows pivotal events, McNulty finally seeing the interior space of Stringer Bell’s apartment and Omar’s death being bumped from the newspaper, focus on this dialectic of official and unofficial visibility. The most important events, the most important transformations are outside the official account of the state and never make it onto television or the newspaper. Williams demonstrates how Simon's work goes full circle, starting with investigative journalism, struggling with the demands of serialized television, only then to end up representing the limits of journalism (and serialized television) on The Wire.
Williams and I agree, at least partly, about the often-maligned final season. It is in some sense not only the shows meta-commentary, marking its difference with conventional police melodrama, but also an attempt to answer the question, “why don’t we see this or know this?” However, Williams has less to say about the show’s other limit, less a matter of narrative or attention, than the impossibility to present the totality that the show gestures towards. One cannot make a melodrama of abstraction, of the forces that actually determine our existence. I think that this is why Simon could only think of these forces as akin to gods.