Television

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

Cynthia C. Scott

Although many fans, critics, and scholars have compared some television series to novels -- though perhaps none more than HBO's The Wire -- Cynthia C. Scott challenges the analogy

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.

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