Work it like a real case and it will feel like a real case.
And, more importantly, it will read like a real case.—Detective Lester Freamon, The Wire
When speaking about The Wire, the HBO series he cocreated with Ed Burns, David Simon frequently compares the show to a nineteenth-century realist novel and suggests that any particular episode might be read as an individual chapter. Indeed, some critics, following Simon himself, have used the term visual novel to mark The Wire's radical break with standard televisual aesthetics. Simon, of course, is not the first to compare television to nineteenth-century realism. In his 1954 "How to Look at Television," Theodor Adorno unfavorably compared mystery shows to nineteenth-century French novels and concluded,
The meandering and endless plots and subplots [in the novels] hardly allowed the readers . . . to be continuously aware of the moral. Readers could expect anything to happen. This no longer holds true. Every spectator of a television mystery knows with absolute certainty how it is going to end. Tension is but superficially maintained and is unlikely to have a serious effect anymore . . . the spectator feels on safe ground all the time.
Of course, nothing within the formal constraints of television necessitates its lack of realism any more than the printing press assures the production of dime novels. Nonetheless, there have only been a handful of television programs in some fifty years that have used the medium of television, with its combination of film's visuality and print culture's seriality, to raise the medium to, as Adorno famously defined art elsewhere, the level of "negative knowledge of the actual world." That Simon explains its structure in terms of the nineteenth-century realist novel is unsurprising, then. Simon strives for the aesthetic and mimetic credibility of literary realism precisely because critics such as Adorno made it critical common sense to think that television could not accomplish more. And if, since Adorno, television has been derided as a conveyer of a commercialized, vernacular culture, then the realist novel has been hailed since Georg Lukács as the only generic medium that can glimpse the historical truth of social totality.
This essay first explores The Wire's televisual realism and then examines that realism through the show's fifth season, the one judged by critics to be nonrealist. I argue, through an examination of Baltimore's Sun and other news-media outlets, that the fifth season adds a new element to the realist series as the production of representation itself is brought into view. In season 5, realism is transformed from a mode into an object as Simon and Burns turn their attention to the production of realism itself in its serial form. Season 5 does for serial realism what the other seasons did for the unions, the schools, and the criminal justice system: it allows us to watch the production of an institution with all its internal compromises and failures. I foremost locate this self-reflexivity in the actions of Detectives Jimmy McNulty and Lester Freamon, who replace Marlo Stanfield, the series' most ruthless killer, with a fictitious serial killer in order to divert money from other city agencies to their now-underfunded police department. The Baltimore police "couldn't catch a real serial killer, well, maybe they need the make-believe" (5.3), McNulty explains, as the violence of a white media economy is narratively substituted for that of a black drug economy. This narrative substitution, and the bifurcation of the representation of real and fictitious racialized violence, become the season's central narrative tension and provide, among other things, a form of self-critique that had been absent. Thus, the fifth season departs from the previous four, whose defining aesthetic feature was their realism as measured against a black underclass and the violence of its illicit economies. By substituting the melodrama of newsroom-serial violence for the structural violence of urban poverty as the main narrative thread, season 5 invites us to critique the relationship among race, violence, economy, and seriality in the construction of realism.
The Wire in its entirety demonstrates how realism is always economic realism, what I will refer to as capitalist...