The Wire may be the best television ever made, but is it truly Dickensian?
Many critics who write about television for the high end of the market believe The Wire is the best American television program ever made, and even people normally skeptical about the aesthetic judgment of TV critics tend agree. Why is The Wire so extraordinary?
(The Wire is an HBO dramatic series that realistically depicts, among other sorts of people, urban drug dealers, policemen, politicians, schoolteachers and journalists. It concluded its fifth and final season a few months ago in the US. and its final season has just arrived in the UK.)
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, although it was never obvious to me until an insightful writer pointed it out, American network television tends to be made in the series form, with a relatively invariant formula. In contrast, drama made for “premium cable” like HBO can be serial rather than series drama. Serial drama may unfold a plot over a number of episodes or seasons, rather than confining its development of character and situation to forty-five minutes of storytelling, which is all the time the makers of traditional series television for network TV are allowed before the dramatic clock is re-set, and the next episode begins. During the most lucrative era of pre-cable network television, any successful formula for a dramatic or comic series was too valuable for anyone to risk tampering with it: the longer the thing ran, the richer everyone got, and some people got very rich indeed by changing nothing at all in a successful series. Serial television, however, is begun with no-one even dreaming that the programme will run forever. It tells its story over the life of the serial, and it has the luxury of developing characters in a much more leisurely fashion (and for that matter, can risk killing some of them off). , which ran for five seasons, developed its story and characters in more than fifty installments. It is one of the reasons why reviewers, and civilian viewers too, looking for a suitable adjective to describe The Wire, often came up with “Dickensian”.
The Wire feels Dickensian in other ways, too. Part of Dickens’ genius lay in his fascination with urban children, and his horror at the waste of their lives. The Wire, with its brilliant exploration of the lives of children in drug gangs, and (sometimes simultaneously) in inner-city schools, in that respect echoes one portion of Dickens more successfully than any living American writer who has made an impression on a mass audience.
Dickens was strongest when he stuck to what he knew most intimately, namely certain areas of London, and was generally weaker when he wandered off into the eighteenth century, or up to the Midlands. The Wire restricts itself to Baltimore, indeed to certain aspects of Baltimore- among them public housing projects, police stations, docks, schools, city hall, a newspaper. These are all worlds that good city reporters and policemen know about, and the writers who created The Wire famously included a former Baltimore cop and a Baltimore newspaperman, one of whom had also worked in the city’s schools. Apparently they decided to stop making The Wire once they ran out of subjects they knew as intimately as what the first five seasons depicted. That was a startlingly principled decision, and also one that suggests they knew just how good a programme they had made. It’s worth noting in this regard that Dickens too began as a reporter, and invented one of the first detectives in literature.Dickens was also, of course, a comic genius, as are, in a smaller way, some of the people who wrote The Wire, and like Dickens’, their comic sense can be quite savage. Since one can very easily overwork an initially plausible simile by overextending it into a conceit, it is probably a good idea to put the Dickens comparison to rest. In any case, there are vast numbers of differences, most of them inevitably to the advantage of the already canonical genius, but perhaps not all of them. Dickens, after all, was often accused of sentimentality, and no-one has ever accused The Wire of that particular vice. Indeed people who do not like the show usually make the opposite charge: that it is too cruel, and too harsh. To again risk the obvious, the world it chronicles, the lives and fates of people living and working in a decaying American city, are themselves often cruel and harsh, and any great and greatly honest account of them will possess such tones as well.
The Wire has other virtues. It shows how the police and the drug gangs do what they do — in this respect, it provides some of the pleasures John Le Carre did, when he wrote about what his readers learned to call the tradecraft of espionage. It also shows how and why both sets of actors generally fail.
Moreover The Wire has a tragic sense, and in ways more precise than the contemporary connotation of telling some very sad stories. It recounts the fall (within an updated and necessarily restricted social compass) of some people whom one can at least imagine as great men — or the closest a dying American inner city is likely to get to that unfashionable phrase.It does not feel cynical, although it can be remarkably bleak. Its pessimism about American politics and policing — and journalism, and public policy — feels earned, and never cheap. It also tells immensely exciting stories, chronicling duels between gifted detectives and their sometimes extremely able adversaries, while never neglecting the much larger numbers of mediocrities, and for that matter idiots, on both sides.
My opinion of The Wire zoomed after the fourth episode of its first season — it starts slowly — and rose vertiginously a few years later, when a friend, a novelist who had grown up in something very like the ghetto world it describes, agreed to watch it on HBO On Demand, during a period when all of it was available. She was initially scornful that any television serial could accurately depict the milieu that had destroyed or grievously damaged most of the people with whom she had grown up, and then she was oddly furious when its seemed to come impossibly close to doing just that. Pretty soon she was watching three or four episodes a day, and began phoning in threats — if this or that or a third thing did not happen, then The Wire was a lie, and she would stop watching immediately, because sooner or later those things all happened to everyone in that world. And then this, and that, and the third thing all happened, and now, like most of The Wire‘s admirers, she remains dazzled by an amazing demonstration of just how good the best American television can be.