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Realism and Utopia in The Wire

From: Criticism
Volume 52, Number 3-4, Summer/Fall 2010
pp. 359-372 | 10.1353/crt.2010.0053

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Generic classifications are indispensable to mass or commercial culture at the same time that their practice in postmodernity grows more and more complex or hybrid. Is The Wire a police procedural, for example? No doubt, but it is also a version of the organized crime story. The majority of its actors and characters are black, which nonetheless does not exactly make it a black film (a film for black audiences). There is a political drama going on here, as well, but its nature as local politics reminds us that it is also very much a local series, one framed in Baltimore and very much about Baltimore (something not always to the liking of Baltimore's elites). It is, however, also the case that most detective or crime literature today (as well as its filmic offshoots or inspirations) is local and based on the consumption of a specific landscape (whether a foreign country—Swedish detective stories, Italian ones, even Chinese detective stories—or regional—Montana, Louisiana, Los Angeles, Toronto, etc.). The broadest categories would then be that of the thriller or that of the action film (although there are few chase scenes, no cliff-hangers, few-enough mass action or carnage scenes).

Each of the five years of the TV series is a unit in terms of plot and theme; and there are at least a hundred characters deployed in each season, many of whom carry their own independent plotlines. It may be argued that there is a single major protagonist, the Irish American detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), even though his status fluctuates over the five years of the series and is often eclipsed by other characters. This is to say that a work of this kind challenges and problematizes the distinction between protagonists and "secondary characters" (or stars and "character actors"), in ways most often described, I guess, as "epic" (War and Peace, Gone with the Wind)—a characterization that does not help to underscore what may be a historical development in the evolution of this kind of plot (see Alexander Woloch on secondary characters).

The episodes in each series are not separate and freestanding as they were in Homicide (screenwriter/producer David Simon's previous series, also set in Baltimore and using some of the same actors); so this is a series, or serial, like those by Dickens, and an inquiry into a specifically televisual aesthetic would want to interrogate the fascination with individual actor-characters (pleasures of recognition and repetition), alongside the development of a distinct plot, where frustration and the week-by-week postponement (even the sense of deliberate retardation and the impossibility of closure)—all of this put back into question by DVD rentals—work in the direction of a difference stamped with a unique temporality, whose rhythm is, however, then reorganized into a repetition. Repetition enhances the function of the television set as consolation and security: you are not alone when it is on in the house with you, and you are not lonely or isolated when your space is peopled by so many familiar faces and characters. On the other hand, since both these features can function as neurotic denial, television carries with it a permanent possibility of boredom and sterile or neurotic repetition or paralysis. The program must then have available a secondary ideological pretext, the window dressing of a "value": art or quality would be one of those, but also "entertainment" or relaxation-distraction (after a long day at work, for example)—a pseudoconcept if there ever was one. And there is also the alibi of the political or social message, and the "cultural capital" of the cable channel (HBO in this case, which of course claims to be something more than mere television). There could also be an artistic bonus, owing to the fact that each of the episodes is written and/or directed by different people, some of them distinguished visitors (George Pelecanos, Agnieszka Holland).

But initially we approach The Wire as a crime story; that is, a struggle between two collectivities: the police and the crime gangs (for the most part, the crime is drug trafficking). Each of these groups has its representational history: it was not terribly...