HBO or TV: Or How ‘The Wire’ Is Not a Novel

Television has always been regarded as the redheaded stepchild in the arts and entertainment industry, “the boob tube”, a vast cultural wasteland of bad sitcoms, cheesy dramas, and vulgar daytime talk shows. Anyone who wanted to show off how smart he was could do so by saying, “I don’t watch television,” or trump any argument on the subject by simply acknowledging that he doesn’t even own one. That’s all changed now. While there are still a few hold outs who think television is too stupid for their tastes, many others now regard the medium as an art form.

Attitudes toward television began changing within the last twenty years when networks executives started championing TV shows that pushed the envelope artistically. HBO of course led the way with regular series such as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, and others, but broadcast television was in fact ahead of the curve by producing quality programs like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Twin Peaks, Homicide: Life on the Street, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The West Wing, Lost and so on. AMC’s Mad Men is also leading the way by proving that television doesn’t have to dumb down its material in order to achieve cultural relevance. Television can be and is an art form whose real potential has yet to be tapped.

One thing I do hear continuously however is that fans and critics are saying that TV at its best can be like a good novel, capable of being every bit as full of intelligence and depth. Some even go so far as to say that shows like The Wire are novels and should be watched with that in mind (the cognitive dissonance there ought to tell you something about such comparisons). Odd, considering that serialized TV has a rich history from which these contemporary shows draw.

Serialized dramas in fact predate TV with the creation of soap operas and have evolved over the decades to include the miniseries and storyline arcs in episodic TV, creating a more holistic form of storytelling that rely more on plot and character development. One can draw a straight evolutionary line from soap operas like As the World Turns, the miniseries such as the BBC import Upstairs, Downstairs, primetime dramas like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue to more recent serialized dramas like Big Love. In these serialized dramas, stories are stretched out over the course of a season and large casts (during its heyday, most soaps had a cast upwards of thirty or so actors) and overarching themes and messages dominate.

And yet fans, critics, and even showrunners ran away from that history to draw a more direct link with the novel. Writer and producer David Simon was the first to draw this link when he created the critically lauded HBO series The Wire. In interviews, he described The Wire as a “televisual novel”, with each episode written as a chapter in the continuing drama. He even made references to writers Honoré de Balzac and Theodore Dreiser as literary forbearers. Instead of hiring writers with a resume out of television, he chose novelists and short story writers George Pellicanos, Richard Price, and Rafael Alvarez to head his writing staff instead. Critics picked up these cues and began hailing the series for its novelistic depth, describing it even as “Dickensian” and praising it for its naturalistic storytelling and social relevance. Viewers potentially put off by the show’s slow and deliberate pace were encouraged to compare it to the experience of reading a novel. Those who stuck with it were rewarded with payoffs in the end (as though reading itself is a boring chore one must get through in order to get to the payoff of a great ending). The Wire fans, some of the most dedicated around, proselytized the show to anyone who would listen, also suggesting that it’s slow pacing, density, and social realism were “like a novel”. Viewers who paid close attention to the details the writers set up to explain the various urban institutions of Baltimore and how they were intricately linked to create a society that crushed individual free will were rewarded with a meticulously told and socially relevant story unlike any seen on television. In other words, The Wire was a novel precisely because it borrowed styles and forms that are found in that medium.

Since the show left the air in 2008, The Wire has become for both critics and fans alike an example of great television. Even writers such as Zadie Smith, Nick Hornby, and, recently, Lorrie Moore in the New York Review of Books have sung its praises. Yet comparisons to the novel are rather specious since both the novel and televisual drama have attributes that are unique to each medium. They also offer fans the chance to confer respect on the genre without having to admit how the serialized drama actually evolved. Suggesting that The Wire is more a novel than a TV show refutes the very real artistic evolution television has undertaken since its advent. One need only to ignore this link if one thought such “novelistic” creations as The Wire or Mad Men couldn’t have possibly evolved from a history of televisual storytelling that also includes the soap opera.

First of all, to suggest that a television show is like or can be a novel is like saying a car is like a boat. Certainly they are both modes of transportation, but that doesn’t mean they are the same. Like television, the novel is a medium, a means in which a story can be told, but what makes a novel unique isn’t its tendency toward depth, social relevance, or long term plotting (especially since there are plenty of novels that lack these in ways that are both brilliant and not so brilliant), but rather its reliance on language as its primary means of creative expression. We know this because novels are defined by their length and their length is measured by words. Anything more than 50,000 words is typically a novel (while works fewer than 50,000 are considered novellas, short stories, flash fiction and their various configurations respectively). Television, like film, is more reliant on sound and vision to tell its stories. The differences between storytelling based on language or visuals are enormous and do affect the way a storyteller shapes and structures his tales.

Between visuals and language, the visual is a far more direct means of representation, since a visual image can closely resemble the way the eye perceives depth and dimension. Language, on the other hand, is limited in recreating such optical depth. Yet when used precisely it can be elevated beyond its limitations. Metaphors and similes were developed largely because of these limitations (how might a poet use language to describe that particular shade the sky takes on during sunrise when language itself fails to fully embody such a natural phenomenon and one’s emotional or sublime reaction to it. Thus the birth of poetry’s hoariest cliché). Therefore the main difference between literary and visual texts is the materials of its art and how one shapes or experiences either art. A writer is still subject to the written word to describe characters or their physical and emotional world, while a filmmaker has the use of the visual to do the same. Both have their limitations, but a good writer or filmmaker is able to use those limitations to elevate either art form toward a greater meaning of expression and representation.

Simon noted that he wrote each episode of The Wire like a chapter in a novel, yet time, as it’s experienced in the text, differs in each medium. A page or two of prose can be reduced to a minute or so of screen time, depending on what is being dramatized. And a 45- to 60-minute episode can roughly include upwards of twenty or more scenes, while the chapter of a novel, depending on the type of story, can be limited to one scene or can include up to five or more. An entire chapter therefore might translate into ten minutes worth of screen time in the episode of an average TV series. Therefore a serialized drama can burn through a good 300 page novel before its regular 13-week to 24-week run has been completed. This explains why literary-based shows like True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, or The Walking Dead are taken from serial novels and comic books.

Most novels are largely narrative-driven, while film and TV shows are dramatically-driven. What I mean by this is that a novel, since it is written mainly in prose, can get away with a style of storytelling that isn’t dependent on scenes (dialogue and/or action) the way film and television is. While certainly experimental film and music videos (and/or television commercials) can get away with this as well, using visual images that strip away linear storytelling, dialogue, or action to discover a new expressive language, most commercial films and serialized dramas on the other hand are much more traditional in their storytelling, using scenes and dialogue as the main apparatus to push the story forward. While a film or television series does not need to dramatize every aspect of its characters’ lives (we rarely see the personal lives of the cops and lawyers on the Law & Order franchise), and events can occur off-screen without hurting the story’s linear structure, every significant moment in an hour-long drama or two-hour film will be dramatically expressed in one way or another. Since language allows writers access to areas the camera does not, a novel need not always express itself through the scene in order to be coherent or to push the story forward. Hence, in regards to the novel, narrative is simply prose that can include and/or exclude the scene and can involve interior dialogue, historical or character background, and/or description.

The difference in how each medium expresses itself affects how time is experienced in either. A showrunner interested in writing a “novelistic” TV series will have to dramatize scenes that would otherwise be told in narrative prose in fiction. The creative choices a showrunner makes in regards to what will be dramatized and what won’t will be radically different than the choices a novelist will make. Even filmmakers and TV producers adapting a novel to the screen will have to cut or add scenes (or add or cut characters) that will make the most coherence in visual storytelling. This is why you rarely see faithful adaptations of your favorite novels on the screen.

Also, unlike a novel, a TV series is dictated by program scheduling and/or advertising that benefit the broadcast and cable networks more than they do the showrunners’ artistic demands. After all, why should every episode clock in at the same time if the story itself might dictate that an episode could be told within 15 or 20 minutes. Therefore enough story needs to be available to last not only a single episode but an entire season or series run. This means that a typical serialized drama has to create more scenes and characters than an average contemporary novel can hold, evidenced in the large casts and series run of shows like Lost, The Wire, or Mad Men.

Television is a medium built on a series of interruptions to the narrative.

Television is also a medium built on a series of interruptions to the narrative. Whether they come in the form of commercial breaks on network television or the daily, weekly, and summer/yearly hiatus breaks in between each airing of an episode or series, audiences are used to the fact that at any given point the narrative will be interrupted. Serialized storytelling, after all, is based on the notion that viewers or readers will not experience the story within a single unit of storytelling time, such as one will get in a novel, a play, or film.

Those who argue a direct link between serialized dramas and the novel point out that historically readers experienced the works of Charles Dickens or Henry James through installments. This is certainly true. Yet for most modern readers their experiences with Dickens or James a through the novel format. There are few venues where readers experience a novel piecemeal. The Internet might offer writers and readers this opportunity, yet the Internet, as fractionalized a medium as there ever exists, could never hope to recreate the kind of literary and financial success that Dickens achieved through literary installments. Television, unlike the novel, magazines, or the Net, has far greater potential to reach more viewers (even though The Wire was never a ratings hit, it reached far more viewers than most writers do in readership) than most novelists. Both writers and readers nevertheless experience a long form story through the novel’s format.

Still the novel, like serialized dramas, is composed of a series of interruptions, but these interruptions aren’t defined by the dictates of network or broadcast television, but the stylistic choices of the novelist herself. How many chapters she creates or the length of each chapter or section is determined by the necessity of the story itself. Yet, even with these interruptions, there is still a cohesive unit of storytelling. Serialized dramas have to constantly remind viewers that they are watching a continuing story (“On last’s week episode/season of….”), whereas the reader needs no such reminders.

Of course the DVD has changed the way in which viewers experience television. And part of the reason why TV fans say their favorite shows are like novels is largely because viewers can now experience an entire season as a cohesive unit of time. Yet, despite the popularity of series on DVDs or OnDemand viewing, Americans’ first experience with a television series is mainly through the medium itself and showrunners create and write television shows based on that fact.

Perhaps the reason why fans of the shows Lost, The Sopranos, or Battlestar Galactica were so incensed by the way their respective showrunners ended their series has more to do with the interruptions that are inherent to television storytelling. After all, an episodic TV series can wrap up its narrative structure within the half-hour or hour set-up, allowing viewers to experience a holistic story within a single unit of time. Since a serialized drama requires a course of time in order to tell a story, audiences are denied a chance over each episode to experience a resolution. Viewers are expected to commit to an entire season or even, in the case of Lost, an entire series in order to see how the story plays out. In return for that level of commitment, viewers expect an ending that will reward them. With the novel (for the most part) viewers are rewarded simply by being in the presence of an artist at the peak of her literary skills. This does not mean that the readers don’t care about good endings, but rather that the experience of reading a great novel is a reward in itself. A boring novel can be a waste of time too, but it a great ending won’t redeem that experience, as it seems would be the case with a serial drama.

Fans argue that serialized dramas and novels are similar for the most part because of the length of each media, or to put a finer point on it that length by virtue enables storytellers to create more storytelling depth and detail. Lorrie Moore in her recent praise of The Wire refers to this ability to create depth through “time” when she writes “[C]ertainly the series’ creators know what novelists know: that it takes time to transform a social type into a human, demography into dramaturgy, whether time comes in the form of pages or hours” (Moore, Lorrie. “In the Life of ‘The Wire.’” The New York Review of Books. October 14, 2010). This is a rather confusing statement coming from a writer known for her short stories (“People Like That Are the Only People Here” deserves all the praise it received in the late 1990s). Is she suggesting that only through the novel or a serialized drama can a writer achieve any depth of human behavior? If so, then what are we then to make of the short story or poem, which, unlike the novel, goes to the very core of human life without the crutch of plots or character development to carry it along.

What are we to make of Flannery O’Connor or Raymond Carver, two writers who were either known for their short stories or, in Carvers’ case, only wrote in them? I would argue that one can find as much depth of emotion and human behavior in their stories as one can find in a novel. James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” says as much about the human condition and the often institutionalized choices individuals were forced to make in 1950s Harlem as anything found in The Wire. And unlike The Wire, which was curiously ahistorical considering that it took place in an American city whose history reaches back to the pre-colonial period, “Sonny’s Blues” is able to subtly build on its emotional depth through the history of African American self-expression, in this case the language of jazz.

Depth or detail is not a function of the amount of time in which one can tell a story, but rather how a writer chooses to use that time. We can agree or not about the relative artistic qualities of the Twilight novels, but that debate won’t change the fact that they are still, in fact, novels (and considering that they comprise a trilogy very lengthy ones indeed).

Yet, having said all that, one can argue, and I certainly would, that television is a part of the tradition of literary theories, since this is far more easily translatable than literary style or form. The Wire is indeed a naturalistic heir to Dreiser and Balzac or for that matter that The Sopranos is as much a televisual grandchild of the Modernist movement as anything yet seen in literature today.

The argument that television by virtue will never achieve the same artistic relevance has always been silly. One does not need to argue that The Wire or any other serialized drama is like or can be a novel in order to prove their artistic ambitions. Doing so is a rather lazy way to bring legitimacy to a medium that has been looked down upon for so long. Ironic though that those who do make such comparisons reveal the little respect they have for television. HBO’s marketing campaign “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO” is evidence of that. Yet by making such comparisons, critics and fans alike devalue what makes the novel truly unique, while dehistoricizing the creative evolution of television and the ways in which this history helped inform and inspire shows like The Sopranos or Mad Men.

Fans often say, in spite the lack of huge ratings for their cable favorites, that they are ten times better than anything else found on TV. This is true. But then, considering the number of book titles published each year, one can say the same thing about Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. This is the danger when the quantity of any medium out matches quality. Quality isn’t something that is naturally inherent to any medium, be it the novel, theater, or cinema. Nor does one need to tell a lengthy story in order to bring a fresh, truthful eye to the human condition. Rather any medium that can attract artistic talents, which television has certainly done both in front of and behind the camera for over seventy years, will always have the potential to be art.