Linda Williams on the Melodrama of Black and White in ‘The Wire’

On The Wire is a must-read book for everyone who believes that the HBO series is life-changing fiction of the highest order.

In today’s fast moving, hyper-connected digital culture, the prospect of diving into any television series seems daunting. The instant access and ability to binge-watch cannot disguise the fact that it takes many hours of concentration to consume any one of those great premium cable dramas from the past that are no longer on the air. Most of us, frankly, do not have the free time.

I’m that annoying person who has more free time than I could possibly ask for, yet I still feel uncomfortable using that time to catch up on older television series. Every time I try, for instance, to watch HBO’s highly regarded Six Feet Under (2001-2005), I think about the 63 hours I’ll have to give up in order to complete it, and I’m overcome with anxiety. I notice the sun glaring through my window, and feel guilty that I’m not soaking in as much of it as I can before I’m dead.

The wonderful thing about movies, I believe, is that you can watch one a day without feeling like you’re wasting your life away. Television series, on the other hand, can be like marathons that, if you’re not careful, can drain the life out of you.

All of this is to say that I understand why most people don’t bother to watch the television series of yesteryear, because unlike a film, an hour long drama series can’t be finished in one sitting. Why bother, then, when you can cross a few more movies off of the list and then go outside and play?

Here’s why you should bother. If there’s one drama series that demands your attention and deserves your time commitment, it’s David Simon’s The Wire, which aired on HBO from 2002 until 2008. Those who’ve seen The Wire constantly cite it as the greatest television series in history, and in terms of consistent excellence, it cannot be beat. Even the fifth season, which many fans regard as the least successful, is better than anything else out there right now, including the overrated True Detective.

Another enticing reason to watch The Wire is to read Linda Williams’ wonderful new study of the series, appropriately titled On The Wire. Her book is academic in nature and therefore will be of great interest to scholars in media studies, but her prose is so accessible that even non-academic fans of the series will appreciate it.

The book is divided into three parts, and Part One, “World Enough and Time: The Genesis and Genius of The Wire”, places the series within a historical context. Here, Williams discusses how Simon’s early experiences as an ethnographic journalist inform his construction of the series. As Williams writes, “As the series cuts from one site to the next, rarely stopping to recap or reiterate, it approaches what the ethnographer could only dream of: a multisited ethnographic imaginary that no longer needs to depend on allusions to abstract ideas.”

Williams analyzes specific articles that Simon wrote for The Baltimore Sun, his book and HBO miniseries The Corner (book 1997; miniseries 2000), and his police procedural Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999), and this is extremely informative for those who aren’t familiar with his work before The Wire. It suggests that Simon is a true auteur of television, and even though The Wire is a giant step forward in quality, Williams reminds us that Simon has always been interested in exploring themes of institutional corruption and urban decay.

At the end of Part One, Williams boldly claims that The Wire has more in common with most television series than critics have previously suggested, thereby undermining the slogan “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO.” She argues that the series is typical to the medium because it adheres to the “short beat that contrasts, informs, and corresponds to another,” which in her view is “the true backbone of television narrative.” For Williams, then, what separates The Wire from other television and makes it “remarkable” is not its structure per se, but “its move away from the tried-and-true-family-saga melodrama into what I will call the serial melodrama of institutional connections.”

In Part Two, “Justice in The Wire: Tragedy, Realism, and Melodrama”, Williams argues that the series is a popular “institutional” melodrama. Here, she counters most critics and scholars, and even Simon himself, who have gone on record to compare The Wire to Greek tragedy. Simon and others mistakenly make these comparisons, Williams asserts, because they fail to grasp the true meaning of the terms. As Williams notes, “There is such a thing as good, rich, complex, socially relevant, and politically efficacious melodrama, and the case of The Wire offers an unusual opportunity to grasp what American genre-driven television culture can be at its best.”

Williams’ subsequent distinction between tragedy, realism, and melodrama is important, because it shows how words are often misused. For example, “tragedy” is thrown around to describe anything that is bleak, hence why many use that term to categorize The Wire. In addition, “melodrama” has unfairly been given a negative connotation, as most people equate it with overtly sentimental soap operas or chick flicks. As a result, Williams writes, “critics have failed to understand melodrama’s ongoing grip on most popular as well as many high forms of cultural narrative.”

Williams wishes to correct this, and she argues that melodrama instead is “the dramatic convention in which timely social problems and controversies are addressed.” According to Williams, then, gritty television like The Wire is melodrama because “it enlists forms of realism to generate outrage against realities that could and, according to its creators, should be changed.” Thus, Williams urges everyone (including Simon) to “agree that melodrama endures not only as an archaic holdover of the nineteenth-century play, not only as women’s films or chick flicks or Oprah confessionals…[but] as an evolving mode of storytelling crucial to the establishment of moral good in a secular, liberal age.”

The discussion of melodrama is thought-provoking, and Williams deserves credit for writing about such a complex topic with accessible language, so that those who want to understand her main point can do so without having to decipher needless jargon. At times, however, readers may lose patience with such an abstract, theoretical debate (who cares which terms we use!), and some are bound to question her audacity to call out Simon’s description of his show as tragedy (as if he doesn’t know what he’s talking about!), but these are minor quibbles with an otherwise illuminating section.

Part Three, “Surveillance, Schoolin’, and Race” focuses on “the relationship between real learning and surveillance” as depicted in the series. As Williams writes, “The Wire plays with new wire technologies the way Mad Men plays with martinis—each is the fetish object of its particular storyworld.” Williams points out that the series is critical of this, and she describes how new surveillance technologies are often portrayed as expensive, time-consuming, and ineffective. According to Williams, “the narrative is built more on the navigation of the laws on surveillance than on an idealized vision of these technological capabilities,” leading her to conclude that “surveillance may not always be all it is cracked up to be.”

The final chapter of the book deals with Simon’s depiction of race relations. Williams contends that “The Wire may be the only dramatic narrative in television or film to proceed from a world in which ‘integration’ itself is not a liberal fantasy of ‘tolerant’ interaction, but a necessary, if uneasy cohabitation in which blacks are already the majority.” Moreover, she writes, “even if this dominance is not part of the larger national one, and even if its power is more cultural and linguistic, than economic, this is a crucial game changer for the representation of space in the series. Indeed, the fact that [the series] is able to generate both sympathy and respect for a wide array of black characters who are not portrayed as victims of white villains yet still are victims of the larger, economic and institutional whole is significant.”

To make good on these points, Williams explores a history of what she calls the “melodrama of black and white”, and reiterates some of the main arguments she made in Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson (Princeton University Press, 2001). After she critiques most fictional representations of African-Americans, including but not limited to John Coffey in The Green Mile (1999), she praises The Wire because it “is no longer part of the black and white, tit-for-tat scorekeeping of racial injury” that limited past melodramas of black and white.

Overall, On the Wire is a readable, rigorously argued account of HBO’s seminal series. The chapters on melodrama, surveillance, and race are more complicated than I can describe in this short review, but they are filled with important insights and thought-provoking claims, and I encourage non-academics to stick with them.

Williams is noted for being a top scholar in film and media studies, but On the Wire demonstrates that above all else she is a passionate fan of the series. In order to explain why she loves it so much, and why it has impacted American culture with such force, she’s written a must-read book for everyone who believes that The Wire is life-changing fiction of the highest order.

RATING 8 / 10