The Wire and the Serial Procedural: An Essay in Progress

22May07

Update: The book containing this essay, Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives, is out and quite excellent! Buy it now! Also, the final version of the essay is online at Electronic Book Review, along with a “riposte” from Caroline Levine.

I have been invited to contribute an essay about the fabulous HBO show The Wire for the forthcoming anthology Third Person, a book about “vast narratives” in the series edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. The previous volumes are the aptly named and excellent First Person and Second Person, focusing on new media, games & narratives in a range of examples and frameworks. One of the nice things about this series is that they allow and encourage authors to workshop their essays online. So below the fold is a draft of my essay, about which I’d appreciate any comments or feedback.

A couple of clarifications – I don’t think you need to have seen the show (and certainly not the whole 4 seasons) to make sense of things, and I don’t think that The Wire operates in a plot-driven mode that can easily be “spoiled” by any revelations in this essay. Along those lines, my own caveat is that I have yet to see the show’s fourth season – I’ll be watching it soon & updating the essay, which hopefully won’t need major overhauling to account for the newest season. So please read, leave comments, and hopefully enjoy!

“All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling and Procedural Logic”

<1> The Wire is paradigmatic of a critical darling – few people watch it (at least in the numbers typical of commercial television), but it generates adoration and evangelism by nearly all who do. Television critics have taken it upon themselves to lobby their readers to give the show a chance, asking reluctant viewers to overlook its dark and cynical worldview to see the truth and beauty offered by its searing vision into the bleak heart of the American city. Thankfully for us scattered fans, HBO has allowed the show to continue for five seasons, even without a clear sense that the show’s dedicated fandom leads to overt profitability.

<2> What is most interesting to me about the critical praise deservedly lavished upon The Wire is not how it may or may not yield an increase in viewership, but how the critical consensus seems to situate the show distinctly within the frame of another medium. For many critics, bloggers, fans, and even creator David Simon himself, The Wire is best understood not as a television series, but as a “visual novel.” As a television scholar, this cross-media metaphor bristles – not because I don’t like novels, but because I love television. And I believe that television at its best shouldn’t be understood simply as emulating another older and more culturally valued medium. The Wire is a masterpiece of television, not a novel that happens to be televised, and thus should be understood, analyzed, and celebrated on its own medium’s terms.

<3> Yet thinking comparatively across media can be quite rewarding as a critical exercise, illuminating what makes a particular medium distinctive and how its norms and assumptions might be rethought. So before considering how the show operates televisually, what does thinking of The Wire as a novel teach us about the show? And might other cross-media metaphors yield other critical insights?

From the Literary to the Ludic

<4> The Wire’s novelistic qualities are most directly linked to its storytelling structure and ambitions. As Simon attests in frequent interviews and commentary tracks, he is looking to tell a large sweeping story that has traditionally been the purview of the novel, at least within the realm of culturally legitimate formats. He highlights how each season offers its own structural integrity, much like a specific book within a larger epic novel, and each episode stands as a distinct chapter in that book. The model, modestly left unspoken, might be War and Peace, a vast narrative containing fifteen “books,” each subdivided into at least a dozen chapters and released serially over five years.

<5> In The Wire, each season focuses on a particular facet of Baltimore and slowly builds into a cohesive whole. An episode typically does not follow the self-contained logic of most television programming, as storylines are introduced gradually and major characters might take weeks to appear. “Novelistic” is an apt term for describing this storytelling structure, as we rarely dive into a novel expecting the first chapter to typify the whole work as a television pilot is designed to do—Simon emphasizes how the show requires patience to allow stories to build and themes to accrue, a mode of engagement he suggests is more typical of reading than viewing. Enhancing the show’s novelistic claims is the presence of well-regarded crime fiction writers like George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane on the writing staff.

<6> This parallel to the novel brings with it not just an imagined structure and scope, but a host of assumed cultural values as well. While the novel’s history in the 18th and 19th centuries featured numerous contestations over the form’s aesthetic and cultural merits, by the time television emerged in the mid-20th century, the literary novel’s cultural role as among the most elite and privileged storytelling formats was firmly ensconced. As the most popular and culturally influential form of storytelling, television has usurped the role the early novel played as a lowbrow mass medium threatening to corrupt its readers and demean cultural standards.

<7> By asserting The Wire as a televised novel, Simon and critics are attempting to legitimize and validate the demeaned television medium by linking it to the highbrow cultural sphere of literature. The phrase “televised novel” functions as an oxymoron in its assumed cultural values, much like the term “soap opera” juxtaposes the extremities of art and commerce into a cultural contradiction. For The Wire, especially in its context of HBO’s slogan “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO,” the link to the novel rescues the show from the stigmas of its televised form, raising it above the commercialized swamp of ephemera imagined by many as typical television. But I would contend that emphasizing the literary facets of The Wire obscures many of its virtues and qualities, setting it up to fail when measured by the aesthetic aims of the novel.

<8> While any form as diverse as the novel cannot be firmly defined as dependent on any singular theme or formal quality, we can point to some key features common to many novels that The Wire seems not to share. Novels typically probe the interior lives of its characters, both through plots that center upon character growth and transformations, and through the scope of narration that accesses characters’ thoughts and beliefs. Even novels about a broad range of people and institutions often ground their vision of the world through the experiences of one or more central characters who transform through the narrative drive.

<9> Simon has suggested that The Wire is a show about the relationship between individuals and institutions, a claim that the program seems to uphold. But I would argue that the point of emphasis is much more clearly on institutions rather than individuals, as within each of the social systems that the show explores—the police, the drug trade, the shipyard, city government, the educational system—the institution is brought into focus through the lens of numerous characters. Certainly McNulty is a central point of access to understand police bureaucracy and functions nominally as the show’s main character, but by season four he is in the margins while characters like Daniels, Colvin, and Bunk provide alternate entry points to explore the police system. Likewise we experience the drug trade through a range of characters from D’Angelo to Stringer, Omar to Cutty. While all of these characters have depth and complexity, we rarely see much of their existence beyond how they fit into their institutional roles—even romantic relationships seem to foreground inter-institutional links between police, lawyers, and politicians more than interpersonal bonds deepening characters’ inner lives and motivations. The chronic alcoholism and infidelity of The Wire’s police officers offers a portrait less of flawed personalities than of a flawed institution—the police admire the systematic discipline and coordination of Barksdale’s crew, which is distinctly lacking in the Baltimore Police Department.

<10> This is not to suggest that characters in The Wire are flat or merely cardboard cutouts to enact a social simulation. One of the show’s most masterful features is its ability to create achingly human characters out of the tiniest moments and subtle gestures—Lester sanding doll furniture, D’Angelo picking out his clothes, Bubbles walking through “Hamsterdam” trying to find himself. But the way The Wire portrays its characters is distinctly not novelistic—we get no internal monologues or speeches articulating characters’ deep thoughts, no sense of deep character goals or transformations motivating the dramatic actions. Character depth is conveyed through the texture of everyday life on the job, a set of operating systems that ultimately work to dehumanize the characters at nearly every turn. As Simon notes,

The Wire has… resisted the idea that, in this post-modern America, individuals triumph over institutions. The institution is always bigger. It doesn’t tolerate that degree of individuality on any level for any length of time. These moments of epic characterization are inherently false. They’re all rooted in, like, old Westerns or something. Guy rides into town, cleans up the town, rides out of town. There’s no cleaning it up anymore. There’s no riding in, there’s no riding out. The town is what it is. (quoted in Mills)

In the show’s character logic, the institution is the defining element in a character’s life, externalized through practices, behaviors, and choices that deny individuality and agency, a storytelling structure that seems contrary to core principles of the literary novel.

<11> Thus the metaphoric postulation of The Wire as a televised novel might yield some structural insights and offers cultural reverberations, but also provides red herrings and dead ends to understanding the show’s narrational strategies and method of representing complex systems. Ultimately I contend that we should view The Wire using the lens of its actual medium of television to best understand and appreciate its achievements and importance. But there are significant insights to be gained through the logic of cross-media frameworks, viewing a text through the expectations and assumptions of another form to understand its particular cultural logic. Might other media metaphors be similarly useful, within limits, to help unravel The Wire? I would like to suggest that ultimately it might be useful to view the program using the lens a seemingly off-base medium, and thus offer a brief detour to answer an unlikely question—how might we conceive of The Wire as a videogame?

<12> Let me preemptively acknowledge one significant limitation here. Obviously watching The Wire is non-interactive, at least not in the explicit mode that Eric Zimmerman argues typifies games (158). But then again, watching a game like baseball is also non-interactive—despite my ritualized efforts to superstitiously trigger my team’s good fortune via carefully chosen clothing, gestures, and behaviors, ultimately I’ve failed to alter the outcome of any Red Sox game (at least as far as I know). In thinking about a filmed series like The Wire as a game, we need to think of the ludic elements within the show’s diegesis, not the interactive play that we expect when booting up a videogame. Thus The Wire might be thought of as a spectatorial game, being played on screen for the benefit of an audience.

<13> Games certainly play a more crucial role within The Wire’s storyworld than literature, as nearly every episode has at least one reference to “the game.” Within the show’s portrait of Baltimore, games are played in all venues—the corners, City Hall, the police station, the union hall—and by a range of players—street-level junkies looking to score, corrupt politicians filling campaign coffers, cops bucking for promotion, stevedores trying to maintain the docks. “The game” is the overarching metaphor for urban struggle, as everyone must play or get played—as Marla Daniels tries to warn her husband Cedric, “the game is rigged – you can’t lose if you don’t play” (episode 1.2). Sometimes characters are playing the same game, as the chase between the cops and Barksdale’s crew develops into a series of moves and counter-moves, but some institutions operate in a different game altogether—in season 1, the cops go to the FBI for help busting Barksdale’s drug and money-laundering system, but the feds are only playing the terrorism and political corruption game. Ultimately, Stringer Bell is brought down by trying to play two games at once, and gets caught when the rules of the drug game conflicts with the corporate game.

<14> David Simon has suggested that the show’s goal is to “portray systems and institutions and be honest with ourselves and viewers about how complex these problems are” (Zurawik). While Simon imagines that the televised novel is the form best suited to accomplish such goals, in today’s media environment, videogames are the go-to medium for portraying complex systems. As Janet Murray writes, “the more we see life in terms of systems, the more we need a system-modeling medium to represent it—and the less we can dismiss such organized rule systems as mere games” (quoted in Moulthrop 64). If novels foreground characterization and interiority in ways that The Wire seems to deny, videogames highlight the complexity of interrelated systems and institutions that are one of the show’s strengths.

<15> Many videogames are predicated on the logic of simulating complex systems, modeling an interrelated set of practices and protocols to explore how one choice ripples through an immersive world. We might imagine The Wire’s Baltimore as the televisual adaptation of the landmark game SimCity. In the first season, we walkthrough the police’s attempt to take-down Barksdale’s drug operation, concluding in a “checkmate” scene where Barksdale and Bell yield to the police’s final moves (1.12), but resulting in a stalemate that no players deem victorious—a few criminals get sentenced, but the Barksdale machine remains intact. Season three offers a replay with some changed variables and strategies for all sides—what if drugs are decriminalized? What if the drug trade goes legit through conglomeration rather than violent competition? What if a former soldier repents and tries to give back to his community? Given the show’s cynical vision of corrupt institutions, reform typically produces various forms of failure, as the parameters of the system are too locked-in to truly produce social change or allow for an imagined solution to systemic problems. Yet the ludic joy of the third season is the ability to replay the first season’s narrative through the imagination of new rules and ways to play the game.

<16> Ultimately the characters in The Wire, while quite human and multi-dimensional, are as narrowly defined in their possibilities as typical videogame avatars. They each do what they do because that is the way the game is played—Bubbles can’t get clean, McNulty can’t follow orders, Avon can’t stop fighting for his corners, Sobotka can’t let go of the glory days of the shipyard. The characters with agency to change, like Stringer Bell, D’Angelo Barksdale, or Bunny Colvin, find the systems too resistant, the “boss levels” too difficult, to overcome the status quo. The show offers a game that resists agency, a system impervious to change, yet the players keep playing because that is all they know how to do. The opening scene in the series shows McNulty interviewing a witness to a murder, killed after trying to rob a craps game; even though the victim tried to “snatch and run” every Friday night, the witness says that they had to let him play, because “it’s America, man” (1.1). The game must be played, no matter the cost. Throughout the series, the moments of greatest conflict are where a player steps over the line and breaks the unwritten rules of his institution—shooting Omar on Sunday morning, Carver leaking information about Daniels, Nick going beyond smuggling to enter the drug trade. In the show’s representation of Baltimore, the game is more than a metaphor—it is the social contract that barely holds the world together.

<17> If my account is correct that the videogame medium offers more insight into what makes The Wire an innovative and successful program than the novel, why wouldn’t Simon or other critics highlight this cross-media parallel as well? One answer is obvious—it helps legitimize the show by comparing it to the highbrow respectable literary form rather than the more derided and marginalized medium. And, of course, I do believe that Simon and his co-writers do conceive of their practices as fitting with their conceptions of what the novel can do, with “the game” serving as only a metaphor for the desolate lives of their characters and institutions. But through my own little game here, reading The Wire for the anthology Third Person through the analytic lens of its previous game studies iteration of First Person, we can see both the possibilities and limitations of analyzing a text through the framework of what it is not—ultimately, the best insights about the show can be found by looking at it for what it is: a masterful example of television storytelling.

The Serialized Procedural

<18> Placing The Wire in the context of television storytelling helps understand why Simon felt compelled to frame his series as atypical of television beyond the implied cultural hierarchies. Upon its debut in 2002, television was in the midst of a distinctive shift in its storytelling strategies and possibilities, exploring a mode of narrative complexity I have analyzed elsewhere (Mittell 2006). Simon’s previous work in television was primarily on the NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street that was based on his journalistic book; Homicide’s producers were constantly battling network requests to make plots more conclusive and uplifting, adding hopeful resolution to its bleak vision of urban murder. But in the decade between Homicide’s 1993 premiere and The Wire’s debut, many programs offered innovations in complex long-form television storytelling, including The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The West Wing, Alias, 24, and most importantly for Simon’s own program, HBO’s critically acclaimed offerings of Oz, The Sopranos, and Six Feet Under. Thus while Simon frames his series primarily in novelistic terms in opposition to his frustrations working on Homicide, there were many key televised precedents for long-form gradual storytelling for him to draw upon.

<19> The Wire does, of course, draw upon a number of televisual traditions, mostly in its position within genre categories. The police drama is an obvious link, but an uncomfortable one—unlike nearly all cop shows, The Wire spends as much time on the criminals as the police, and as the seasons progress, other civic institutions take over the dramatic center. The show belongs more to a non-existent category of “urban drama,” documenting a city’s systemic decay; thematically, police dramas are nearly always about fighting the tide of decay, rather than contributing to its demise. In spirit if not execution, The Wire harkens back to the critically hailed but little seen social issue dramas of the early-1960s, like East Side/West Side and The Defenders, but given the new industrial framework of premium cable television, The Wire can survive as a bleak social statement without reaching a mass audience, a luxury its 1960s network counterparts could not afford.

<20> What the show does share directly with many cop show precedents is its focus on procedure. Dragnet pioneered the television cop show in the 1950s, inventing both the formal and cultural vocabulary of the police procedural. Although it reads as a mannered caricature today, in its day Dragnet represented the height of gripping authenticity, offering viewers a gritty noir view into the underbelly of Los Angeles and a celebration of the police who protect it. The show’s narrative scope focused on the functional machinery of the police world, presenting a form of “systemic realism” that sublimated character depth to institutional logic (Mittell 2004, 137). While Dragnet did distill the larger institution into the perspective of Detective Joe Friday and his assorted partners, creator/producer/star Jack Webb designed the show for Friday to be viewed as “just one little cog in a great enforcement machine” (quoted in Mittell 2004, 126), and played the character to generate a cog-like emotional engagement and redirect focus on the minute details of police procedures. The legacy of Dragnet’s procedural tone lives on in the long-running Law & Order and C.S.I. franchises, each of which offer just enough emotional investment in their institutional workers to engage viewers, but ultimately hook them with twisty mysteries each week to be solved by effective forensic detection or prosecution.

<21> The Wire manages to produce both emotional investment in its characters and a detailed eye for procedures. The opening credits of each season typify the show’s focus—characters are obscured and abstracted into close-ups of body parts, machinery, and icons of city life. What matters in the credits, and arguably the series as a whole, is less who is doing the actions, but more the practices of institutional urban life themselves: the policing, drug slinging, political bribing, and bureaucratic buck-passing that comprise the essence of the show’s portrait of Baltimore in decay. The Wire offers a veritable how-to lesson on the police procedures of wire tapping, shipyard tracking, and surveillance, as well as less sanctioned practices of drug distribution, smuggling, and bribery. While traditional police procedurals have documented the practices of detection and prosecution as evidence of a functional and robust criminal justice system, The Wire’s procedural detail shows official systems that cannot match the discipline, creativity, and flexibility of criminals, both outside and within the city payroll, thus offering a cynical vision of a police system playing out a losing hand.

<22> The show’s formal style supports its claims to authenticity. While it avoids Dragnet’s procedural voiceover narration, The Wire shares a similar commitment to underplaying drama and allowing the onscreen dialogue and action tell the story. The show refuses to use non-diegetic music except to conclude each season, and minimizing camera movement and flashy editing, allowing performances and writing to tell the story with a naturalistic visual style. Unlike many of its contemporary shows employing complex narrative strategies, The Wire avoids flashbacks, voice-over, fantasy sequences, repetition from multiple perspectives, or reflexive commentary on the narrative form itself (see Mittell 2006). In terms of how the show stylistically tells its story, The Wire appears more akin to conventional procedurals like Law & Order than contemporary innovators like The Sopranos or 24, sharing a commitment to authenticity and realism typified by a minimized documentary-style aesthetic that Simon summarizes: “Less is more.Explaining everything to the slowest or laziest member of the audience destroys verisimilitude and reveals the movie itself, rather than the reality that the movie is trying to convey” (Simon 2006).

<23> While its attention to procedural details, authenticity, and verisimilitude might rival any show in television history, ultimately The Wire diverges from one defining attribute of the police procedural. Typically procedurals, whether focusing on police precincts, medical practices, or private detectives, are devoutly episodic in structure—each week, one or more cases gets discovered, processed, and resolved, rarely to reappear or even be remembered in subsequent episodes. On The Wire, cases last an entire season or beyond, and everything that happens is remembered with continuing repercussions throughout the storyworld—lessons are learned, grudges are deepened, stakes are raised. The show demands audiences to invest in their diegetic memories by rewarding detailed consumption with narrative payoffs—for instance, a first season bust of an aide to Senator Clay Davis adds little to that season’s arc, but it sets-up a major plotline of seasons 3 and 4. If Dragnet represents the prototype of the episodic procedural with 100s of interchangeable episodes, The Wire is on the other end of television’s narrational spectrum, with each episode in the series demanding to be viewed in sequence and strict continuity. Thus The Wire functions as what might be television’s only example of a serialized procedural.

<24> How does The Wire structure its balance between serial and episodic storylines? In many examples of television’s contemporary narrative complexity, individual episodes maintain a coherent and steady structure, even when they primarily function as part of a larger storytelling arc (Mittell 2006; Newman 2006). Individual episodes typically offer one self-contained plotline to be resolved while others function primarily within larger season arcs—for instance, Veronica Mars typically introduces and resolves one new mystery each week, while longer character and investigative arcs proceed alongside that week’s stand-alone plot. Other shows use structural devices to identify distinct episodes, such as Lost’s designation of a specific character’s flashbacks each week or Six Feet Under’s “death-of-the-week” structure. The Wire offers very little episodic unity—while each episode is certainly structured to deliver narrative engagement and payoffs, it is hard to isolate any identifying characteristics of a single episode in the way that a show like The Sopranos has particular identifying markers, such as “the college trip” or “the Russian in the woods.” In this way, The Wire does fit Simon’s novelistic ideals, as individual chapters are best viewed as part of a cohesive whole, not as stand-alone entries. Thus The Wire is at once one of television’s most serialized programs, yet also uniquely focused more on institutional procedures and actions than character relationships and emotional struggles that typify most serialized dramas.

<25> What are the impacts of this unique narrative form of the serialized procedural, beyond just a formal innovation with its own pleasurable rewards? Dragnet and subsequent police procedurals represent law enforcement as an efficient machine, a perspective that the narrative form reinforces—by offering a weekly glimpse of how cases are solved and justice is served, the genre supports an underlying ideology of support for the status quo to reassure viewers about the functional state system to protect and serve. Even Homicide’s cynical and downbeat vision of law enforcement offers resolution if not reassurance through its closed narrative structures. On The Wire, the ongoing investigations rarely close and never resolve with any ideological certainties or reassurances, heroic victories or emotional releases. When McNulty allows his pride to swell in recognition that their detail are made up of elite “natural police,” Lester knocks him down, pointing out that even if they close a big case, there will be no “parade, a gold watch, a shining Jimmy McNulty Day moment” (3.9). Even if a resolution to a case arrives, the show refuses closure or any sense of justice being served. Refusing ideological closure or offering any easy answers to solving the complex systemic problems documented in The Wire, in the end it’s all just a game with another hand waiting to be dealt.

<26> The Wire’s game logic returns to the fore here. Many of television’s complex narratives employ a puzzle structure to motivate viewer interest, inspiring fans to watch shows like Lost, Veronica Mars, and Heroes with a forensic eye for details to piece together the mysteries and enigmas encoded within their serial structures. Despite being centered on crimes and detectives, The Wire offers almost no mysteries—we typically know who the criminals are and what they did. Even though the second season begins with an unsolved murder of a shipping container full of Eastern European prostitutes, the whodunit is downplayed in the narrative drive, with the final revelation becoming almost an afterthought with the focus shifted to the larger system of corruption and smuggling. Instead of mysteries, the show’s narrative is focused on the game between competing systems, with suspense and tension generated through anticipation of what procedures will pay off for each side, and how the various sides will end up before the next round is played. The cultural logic of traditional mysteries is based upon a belief in functional institutions of justice being able to solve and punish crime; in The Wire’s cynical vision, mysteries are only obstacles to improving clearance rates for homicide detectives, or disruptions in the functioning machinery of a criminal operation.

<27> The procedural focus of The Wire can be viewed as tied not only to television traditions, but also to the mechanics of gameplay. Within the world of game studies, the term procedural conjures far different connotations than Dragnet and C.S.I.; procedural authorship is seen by some as the essence of coding gameplay or “procedural narrative,” outlining the operations that render the storyworld and player agency (Murray 1997; Mateas & Stern 2007). Although The Wire’s procedural language is not written in binary, each Baltimore institution has an underlying code, from the rules of the drug game’s parlay to the racial rotation in electing union leaders. The show frequently highlights what happens when conflicting codes overlap, as with Stringer’s attempt to bring Robert’s Rules of Order to the meetings of drug dealers, or Colvin’s détente in the drug war to create Hamsterdam—such procedural conflicts trigger the complex social simulation needed to represent the urban environment.

<28> Ultimately it is through its focus on procedure, at the levels of action, play, and code, that The Wire generates its verisimilitude, creating a ludic engagement with the SimCity of 21st century Baltimore. HBO brands its offerings as “not TV,” and in some ways The Wire delivers, offering a mode of storytelling untried in commercial American television, with a tone and outlook antithetical to the medium’s cultural role as a consensus-building vehicle for selling products. But in its innovation, The Wire does reframe what television can do, how stories can be told—perhaps inspired by the novel but referencing the cultural form of games, the show ultimately presents a new model of serial procedurality that offers a probing social investigation of the urban condition. And as the players remind us, “it’s all in the game.”

Works Cited

Mateas, Michael, and Andrew Stern (2007). “Writing Façade: A Case Study in Procedural Authorship.” In Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media, edited by N. Wardrip-Fruin and P. Harrigan. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 183-208.

Mills, David (2007). Undercover Black Man: “Q&A: David Simon (Pt. 1),” January 22 [accessed May 22 2007]. Available from http://undercoverblackman.blogspot.com/2007/01/q-david-simon-pt-1.html.

Mittell, Jason (2004). Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture. New York: Routledge.

Mittell, Jason (2006). “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.” The Velvet Light Trap (58): 29-40.

Moulthrop, Stuart (2004). “From Work to Play: Molecular Culture in the Time of Deadly Games.” In First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, edited by N. Wardrip-Fruin and P. Harrigan. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 56-70.

Murray, Janet Horowitz (1997). Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: Free Press.

Newman, Michael Z. (2006). “From Beats to Arcs: Toward a Poetics of Television Narrative.” The Velvet Light Trap (58): 16-28.

Simon, David. 2006. “The Wire on HBO: Play or Get Played | Exclusive Q&a with David Simon,” August 16 [accessed May 22 2007]. Available from http://members.aol.com/TheWireHBO/exclusive-1.html.

Zimmerman, Eric (2004). “Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games: Four Naughty Concepts in Need of Discipline.” In First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, edited by N. Wardrip-Fruin and P. Harrigan. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 154-65.

Zurawik, David. 2006. “David Simon Has Novel Ideas About Wire.” Baltimore Sun, September 10.

Copyright 2007 by Jason Mittell – this post is not licensed under CreativeCommons (sorry…)

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33 Responses to “The Wire and the Serial Procedural: An Essay in Progress”

  1. 1 ivanaskwith

    Really enjoyed this overall, and my brain isn’t in top form, so I’ll be as coherent as possible. Only two initial comments that might be useful:

    1) In the last sentence of par 23, you indicate that The Wire “might be television’s only example of a serialized procedural.” For what it’s worth, I would definitely place The Shield in this category as well; much (but not all) of what you’ve written here is also applicable to much of the narrative work done on that show.

    2) I like the idea of evaluating a television series as a game structure, and SimCity seems like the obvious example to cite when framing The Wire as such… but I get a bit thrown when you introduce this parallel, and then describe the end of Season 1 as a ‘checkmate’ or ‘stalemate’. While you go on to (accurately) explain that the relationship to SimCity has to do with changing variables to provoke different outcomes, the reference to checkmating or stalemating here — at least to me — read as if you’re implying that these are things that can happen in SimCity, which they can’t. Again, though, I’m tired… so take this comment with a grain of salt.

    I’m glad you posted this, though — I just picked up S1 of The Wire, and it’s the first thing on my to-watch list for this summer… just as soon as the thesis is done. :)

  2. Ivan – thanks for this response. I should deal with The Shield, which I didn’t mostly because it’s a show I don’t particularly care for or watch – I respect it a lot for its ambitions, but hyper-masculinity coupled with a certain level of brutality turns me off. But do you think The Shield does revel in the procedural serially? The episodes I’ve seen offer arcing villains & conflicts, but ultimately the procedural elements are more stand-alone, kind of like Veronica Mars – but again, I do plead a lack of expertise on the show…

    And agreed – I should clarify that I’m suggesting that The Wire evokes a general game logic beyond just SimCity, thus chess, cards, and other conventional games matter as well as videogames. Thanks again!

  3. This is intriguing reading for someone who has neither watched The Wire nor played SimCity (or any game like it). You make me want to immerse myself in those things.

    I’m sympathetic to the argument you’re making about analogies between TV and other media, esp film and literature. In general I find them to be dubious. In particular, the idea of the show as novel-like seems to me, as I think to you, like a promotional discourse rather than an approach useful in analysis. So I think you might give it too much credit in graf 8 when you offer this distinction between novelistic storytelling and The Wire:

    “Novels typically probe the interior lives of its characters, both through plots that center upon character growth and transformations, and through the scope of narration that accesses characters’ thoughts and beliefs. Even novels about a broad range of people and institutions often ground their vision of the world through the experiences of one or more central characters who transform through the narrative drive.”

    To say that this typifies many novels doesn’t get us very far, because the same claim could be made of many narrative forms, and certainly of television serials–which I think is important to your argument. By the same logic, then, your point in this graf could be that the show is not typically “televisual” (which would please HBO if they were paying attention). But since “novelistic” and “televisual” are bogus terms that at best overgeneralize and essentialize and at worst operate as ideologically loaded moral judgments, I would say it’s best to avoid legitimizing such ideas by seeking to refute the claim that the show is novelistic — implicitly, you are granting here that a show that *did* have such characterization *would* be novelistic. I would also guess that scholars of the novel as a genre/form would bristle at the notion that there is such a thing as “core principles” of “novelistic” storytelling/characterization, just as I would be wary of someone arguing that such-and-such is or isn’t “cinematic.” The Wire might actually be like War and Peace, and thus “like a novel,” but why should Tolstoy be our exemplar of the novelistic? Perhaps a more elaborate comparison of The Wire to a *certain kind* of novel would give this kind of thinking more specificity (btw, I have a friend who teaches The Wire alongside Bleak House, and she’s not the first person to seek connections between HBO dramas and Dickens).

    The point about games is different for me, because you’re making connections to more specific and distinct features of play that the show shares and engaging in a kind of imaginative exercise rather than implying that there is an essential game-ness that The Wire shares/doesn’t share.

    This also gets me thinking about connections between novels and television shows in general. It used to be more common, as I recall, for US television to adapt novels into miniseries (I remember The Thornbirds, Winds of War, and of course Roots). We still get British versions of the classics as miniseries, don’t we? Anyhow, I’m not sure that “televised novel” is such an oxymoron.

  4. 4 martynpedler

    You know what? I hate to be that guy, but I’m going to be that guy. I’m not going to read this until I’ve watched Season 3, or if someone can swear in gritty-urban-blood that I won’t be spoiled for anything major! I promise to think of something meaningful to say once I’ve been given the all-clear…

  5. Michael – thanks for the comments. You’re certainly right that medium essentializing is a dangerous game, but I do think there are tendencies toward certain forms of storytelling within particular medium traditions. I did talk to some literary scholars to get their take on my claims, which they felt comfortable about in so far as I’m highlighting broad tendencies not inevitable medium-determined structures. And I’ll definitely clarify that I’m not arguing that other TV shows that foreground internal character lives and transformation aren’t necessarily more novelistic. Thanks for reading – and I hope you do get inspired to watch The Wire, as its certainly worth 60 hours of your life!

    Martyn – agreed. There’s reference to things that I wouldn’t want to have known about before watching s3, although nothing that undermines most of the show’s many pleasures. Enjoy the season!

  6. 6 Daniel Marcus

    Overall, a very good job. I love the comparison between the characters and video game avatars, and the discussion of mystery and resolution is very strong. The comparison between the cops and the gangs also works very well. And, of course, it wouldn’t be one of your pieces without the tagline, “It All Comes Back to Dragnet!” And nary a Lost reference.
    In the comparison of creative forms, I think a few things should be kept in mind, and some actually brought up specifically. First, as you indicate in passing and (I now see after writing all that is below) Mike follows up on in comments, novels take many different forms. You state the The Wire is most like a 19th century epic, and the War and Peace comparison may be apt (I’ve never read it). But in too many discussions of TV/film/novel, there is no real acknowledgment that all novels aren’t alike. Particularly, there is no acknowledgment that the novel form has been influenced greatly by film and TV in the last 50 years, just as it was by magazine formats in the 19th century. 19th century lit fans (um, like me) might point out the thinning of storylines, reduction of depth of characters, rapidity of scene change, and particularly the reduction in density of prose in contemporary lit (very telling when comparing US and West Euro novels of today with novels from regions that weren’t so quick to adopt TV as a primary cultural resource, such as Eastern Euro and South Asia).
    Along these lines, an interesting aspect of The Wire’s formal organization is the shortness of the scenes, particularly in seasons 2 and 3 (I also haven’t seen 4 yet). The series seems to make a fetish of chopping up each story line into tiny incidents (I think they may have taken some of its praise as multiplicitous, complex, and unresolved too much to heart). So while the overall story is sprawling, most scenes are minimalist to the point of frustration, which doesn’t seem like an attribute of 19th century novelistic technique at all, but, when found in the literary world, much more a modern response to the influence of TV and film. Also, since you mention Richard Price as a contributor, it seems worth thinking about the show’s similarities to perhaps his best-known book, Clockers, which has a cops vs dealers theme (and is a fantastic book, much better than Spike Lee’s movie version).
    You might also consider other TV forms that both are based on other media and share some characteristics with the series. Docudramas often use other media as source material, and The Wire bases many of its stories and characters on real Baltimore history. Since you bring up Homicide, you should look at The Corner, Simon’s docudrama miniseries, and the bridge between Homicide and The Wire in many ways. The historical fiction/docudrama parameters might be worked out more fully in another piece, if you want to continue writing on the show.
    I can understand if you don’t want to turn it into a survey of how The Wire compares to every other form, but linking it to newspapers also seems important. After all, that’s where Simon started out, and the show’s lack of resolution, ontological status as an ongoing record of small variations within an unchanging social structure, and focus on urban life and politics are all shared by newspapers. Every newspaper story is its own episode, but rarely contains climaxes or resolutions, and only can be understood in larger contexts of presentation, as with The Wire. Each edition of the paper contains multiple stories with implicit links to each other, but often it takes months or years to make the connections. (The Wire benefits from making those connections more explicit over time.) Your entire discussion of the series’ ontology seems to bring out this comparison and connection.
    Finally, I think the inner life of major characters is displayed a bit more than you do, especially McNulty, D’Angelo, and Kima. Yes, the show focuses on characters’ social function rather than personal lives (I STILL want to know if Lester is still with the young informant from the club in season 1), but the three of them do get the occasional self-reflective moment in which they reveal what this all means to them in one way or another.

    Jason’s response:Thanks for the comments, Dan! I agree with much of what you wrote, and had thought of including some discussion of journalism/documentary as another comparative medium. I also think the Clockers parallel is interesting – the first season seems quite inspired by the book with McNulty & D’Angelo a strong parallel to the book’s main characters – although the book is so much more focused on the characters & their lives than the institutions that I’d argue it strengthens my argument of the show’s non-novelistic qualities. And clearly I’ll have to measure my claims about novels based on both your & Mike’s comments. Thanks again!

  7. The Wire singlehandedly changed my perspective on what TV as a medium is capable of, and in that sense I’ve wholeheartedly bought into Simon’s position that the show is a televised novel. But I would also say that the show has influenced me more than any other single film, book, painting, song, photograph, or game.

    My question regarding your thesis that The Wire can be compared to video games is this: what about its ending? We’ll have to wait to see how the final chapter (Season 5) ends, but video games normally have a big, bad boss that the player inevitably triumphs over by finding its Achilles heel. In The Wire, no one wins–victory, if had at all, is always temporary. Video games offer a firebreathing, rocket-launching bad guy with a soft underbelly, but in The Wire “the game” has no such vulnerability.

    Season 4 introduces numerous (seeming) political victories with it’s Martin O’Malley plotline, with multiple characters toasting the dawn of a new day. But I’d guess that most of their dreams become… well, pipe dreams–once they meet the full brunt of the political system.

    I’m not a gamer but I am interested in the medium as a method of storytelling, and I was thinking the other day about how one would go about creating a videogame where the player never wins. I suppose some of these new online role-playing games represent this in to a certain extent, but I can only guess that the player’s existence in these virtual worlds is characterized more by a series of triumphs than a series of failures and diminished expectations (as in The Wire). I’m doubtful that a game that couldn’t be beat would sell very well–as is the case with most of the ideas I kick around in my head.

    My other question for you, and this may be outside the scope of your essay, is how The Wire as a novel relates to new media such as internet and mobile video. TV shows as one long continuous story are fairly new to the medium, or are at least enjoying an all-time high in popularity, and it would seem this method of serialization is perfectly suited for micro-fractured storytelling as seen in some of the online shows out there now (or coming soon, as is the case with my own effort).

    In a way, these serials themselves represent a return to a kind of comic-book storytelling, but I’ve never really read comic books so I’m not sure that comparison holds any weight. Perhaps the general point to make is that many different methods of visual storytelling are currently converging, not only in terms of device (TV, computers, iPods) but also in terms of method.

    Anyway, savor season 4, in my opinion it’s the broadest, bitterest, and best yet.

  8. 8 elpanek

    I had noticed that 3 HBO series all concentrate on hierarchy (or class): Sopranos, The Wire, and Rome. But The Sopranos and Rome seem to set up this system so that they can have characters come to question it (and thereby encourage viewers to question such hierarchies). That’s something that video games (and The Wire, as much as I’ve watched of it) haven’t done yet. There is no existential crisis waiting at the higher levels of Sim City.

    Though The Sopranos/Rome spend far more time on character, there are occasionally scenes and subplots that seem to have very little to do with primary characters’ development and far more to do with outlining the rules of a game. Perhaps its worth noting that Norman Mailer applied the novel metaphor to The Sopranos. One more nitpicky thing: you overuse the word “ultimately.”

  9. 9 Jonathan Gray

    Hi Jason

    Hope I’m not posting too late to help – ICA took up my time. On the whole, I’m really receptive to some of the parallels and points you make, though I might feel more comfortable if you watered some down or qualified them a bit more with some escape clauses, since they work at a broad level but occasionally not at a precise level. Below I’m kind of critical, but frame that within my general interest in the connections you’re drawing, and as a plea for a bit of unpacking, not for radical change. Consider my comments the devil’s advocate. Two points in particular to cover:

    1. Like Michael and Daniel, I’m a little uneasy with the medium generalization, in part because the novel is many different things, or, rather, different novels or computer games are very different. To The Lighthouse is not Dombey and Son, just as Katamari Damacy is not GTA (though I’d be interested in a hybrid of the latter two!). My own guru for comments on the novel is Mikhail Bakhtin, and some of what he says applies brilliantly to The Wire. Namely: (a) that the novel is a dialogic entity. And certainly The Wire’s dialogism makes it reasonably peculiar for TV, and another major distinguishing element from other cop shows; (b) that novels establish chronotopes, which Bakhtin uses to suggest a sort of state-of-being-in-the-here-and-now that we might see as quite similar to an institutional focus such as The Wire. Admittedly, Bakhtin is way cooler than most novel theorists, but I guess my point is that there are different ways to look at novels, and by some ways, The Wire bears out the comparison. Postcolonial novels often focus on institutions more than characters too, let me note (or, as I argue below The Wire does, they do both hand-in-hand). I appreciate the attempt to get us away from “novel” as codeword for “better,” but perhaps what makes The Wire so damn good is that it *combines* the strengths of certain media, novels *and* games?

    2. Related to this, then, is a bit of skepticism about the SimCity parallel. I like it at a broad level, and it really helps to open up what The Wire does well. But the characters in the show aren’t just figures in SimCity, making me baulk a little bit with such sentences as the one at the end of par. 24, since I don’t think the two things that you contrast are separate in The Wire; rather, they’re married. I’d argue that the *remarkable* strength of acting and writing in the characterization of deep, involved figures is what makes the institutional element possible. The Wire offers characters with more depth than most shows on TV (Omar, Presbo, McNulty, Bunk, Griggs, Avon). Almost anyone I know who watches the show [MARTYN – LOOK AWAY!] was floored by Stringer being killed, because he’s a brilliant character. Or Wallace’s murder is shocking. Or D’Angelo’s. Or even WeeBay’s bold decision in S4. As is the end of S4. Such moments are arresting only because those characters are so much better realized than many characters on other shows. Or, to cut the comparisons, they’re just good. Also, I’d disagree that the show can’t be spoiled that much (if I told you right now what happens to each of the four main kids at the end of S4, for instance, I would probably piss you off in the long run). So much of what happens to the characters is prefigured by their institutional situation or placement, but we therefore care about “the system” and the institutions all the more because what’s happening is happening to people we care about. By comparison, when a bad guy on GTA finally gets killed, I don’t feel for him, nor therefore does this provoke much reflection on his place in society. And I don’t care about any of the people in SimCity (heck, I’m the sick bastard who enjoyed natural disasters more than playing the game). I might also add that it’s often characters’ attempts to do things that *aren’t* in the rules of “the game” that are significant plot engines (Colvin making Hamsterdam; McNulty becoming a beat cop; or many of Omar’s moves as attempts to make his own game).

    Finally, a little point: you should probably mention that “the game” is street-slang for the drug-dealing business … lest you be read as an out-of-touch Vermont white guy :-)

  10. 10 Paul Ramaeker

    I have only just had time to read the article, and I like it, but would throw my own weight behind Mike and Dan’s questions about medium specificity. Reading the essay, the first thing that struck me as problematic was para. 8- as they point out (but we could go further, with examples from pulp fiction, the nouveau roman, and way more), there are actually loads of novels that don’t do the particular things you describe the novel as doing in general. I don’t spend enough time thinking about videogames to know the analogies to games inside and out, but it comes off as “Simon compares it to the novel, but he *should* be comparing it to videogames”. But I think your argument is really, “Simon compares it to the novel, but we should be thinking about it in terms of television”. If the latter, the videogame thing functions as a subpoint: “Simon compares it to the novel, but then why not videogames as well (at least as apt)? In fact, we should be thinking about it as TV.”
    So in other words, I’d clarify what your basic argument is as regards media and what place videogames has within that argument.

  11. Thanks all for this last wave of comments. All are helpful in setting up some revisions I’ll do soon. I think Paul hits the crux of my problem – I am ultimately (yes Elliot, I know…) trying to argue the final version of Paul’s theses: Simon compares it to the novel, but then why not videogames as well (at least as apt)? In fact, we should be thinking about it as TV. I think by wandering through cross-media metaphors, we get some insights, but the real payoff is understanding the show through the lens of its own medium – television’s traditions, norms, history, and possibilities. So I’ll downplay the novel generalizations and clarify why I’m doing the gaming metaphor, emphasizing that I’m trying to be a bit playful by making a semi-ridiculous leap.

    As for Ryan’s question about games & endings, SimCity is a model of a game that doesn’t end, as are other simulations or persistent worlds (MMOs like World of Warcraft). It’s about the ongoing process rather than a definitive narrative ending. Of course I’m not saying that The Wire is really like these games, but that by thinking across media we can learn something through the journey. Thanks again!

  12. 12 mcnulty

    Very interesting. I’m not a media scholar, but just an avid the wire fan, and really enjoyed reading your post. Made me better understand some of the underlying appeal of the show, and also hoping for a video game version :-)

  13. 13 uri

    Great essay. I think you really hit the nail on the head with the lack of internal dialog as a reason to distinguish The Wire from literature without demoting it to the level o classic TV scripts. There’s something optimistic in seeing the best TV show around as resembling the as yet maturing medium of computer games and simulation and not necessarily copying the novel which is arguably a medium that is past it’s prime.

    Needs a new title though. May I suggest “All in the Game Theory”

  14. 14 marc

    I feel bad that I only found this article today.

    But a few thoughts.

    First off, another cross-media move to make would be a comparison of the Sopranos and the Wire as a difference coming down to the different between portraiture and landscaping. In portraits, the subject is clearly a character, or a family. And to me, The Sopranos seem to fall into this mode: an extended foray into the anxieties and pleasures of a modern made man (and his family). The landscape-let’s say mural- has no such single-character focus. This is what we see in The Wire, a set of interlocking characters, each with their part to play. But again, the focus is not on a person, it’s on an environment. Think back to those maddening 16th century (I think) Dutch paintings that are almost more 2-D sketches of chaos between good and evil forces. It’s more like a Hopper painting of urban setting: when characters appear, it is only to understand their relation to the rest of their environment. And to that extent, it almost approaches the Shakespearian tragedy, where even the minor characters have lines that add meaning to the whole play.

    It seems one of your major complaints against the novel comparison is a ‘lack of interiority’ with the characters. But this has more to do with the realist/naturalistic mode of presentation than with anything inherent with the novelistic structure itself. Central to the novel is a subject matter that goes beyond mere characterization and plot itself. For that, we have the romance.

    What you have to say about the serialized procedural is spot on. Two things to add.
    One, the Wire highlights the facts that we have choices in what ‘procedures’ we follow. Two, the Wire makes a case that what is important is not the procedures themselves, but the politics and other institutional factors (as you say, the other games being played). Now, these two points contradict somewhat, but not entirely.

    One, the Wire presents, among others, two stark choices between ‘neighborhood policing’ and ‘war on drugs.’ One set of procedures revolves around rip-n-runs, running rabbit in the alleys, clearing corners, and other highly militarized techniques. The communiting policing option revolves around an intelligence angle: informants, knowing all the people in a neighborhood, going lenient on light crimes to get after major crimes. This is represented in McNulty in season 1 and in the growth of Carver in seasons 2 and 3. The Wire seems to promote policing, properly understood as a shepherding with street level intelligence. So the Wire might be the first procedural to openly admit that the procedures involved are only secondary. Two, cases in the Wire live and die based upon the support from superiors. Superiors (all the way up to the politicos) can ruin all the hard work of those below. (But since this seems to fall within your ‘levels of games’ I’ll let it go.)

    On gamesmanship. One thing I’d like to see you delve into would be the relationship between the games presented, and the nature of work. Police work, slinging drugs, campaigning for office, are all presented as games in your essay. In the Wire, they seem presented (at least sometimes) as examples of the death of work. Work is almost constantly devalued in the Wire, even as discipline is valued. Anyway, it might be worth exploring.

    On games again. One thing you seem to be ignoring or forgetting, is that the players and characters in the wire, seem constantly to be learning rules on the fly. Carver and Herc are learning politics. Season 2 shows the dockworkers learning how to commit major crimes and try to stay alive swimming in deeper waters. Season 3 shows Stringer Bell trying to learn the rules of ‘legit’ money. Examples abound. It seems to make a difference which type of game is being played. Cards, sports, etc, all the rules are known prior to the game. Perhaps in a game like SimCity, the rules (and consequences) are hidden until triggered, just ask Lester Freamon and McNulty about learning the rules (see basement and boat, respectively). I think there’s one card game out there that takes its meaning out of breaking in new players, but I forget the name.

    TV. I’m curious that you would spend so much time trying to define a medium in its own terms, and then leave out the visuals of The Wire. Much of the character and ambience seems set by the camera shots between scenes. Furthermore, many scenes go by with no dialogue supporting it, or little facial expressions and body language being the key tells as to how characters react. The visuals and the dialogue are all balanced against each other. In seasons 3 and 4 keep a look out for the various campaign signs plastered in the background. Meaning is added by the visuals and not merely by the dialogue and action.

    Morals. So much focus on developing the rules and complex interacting systems of your game metaphor, and perhaps you forgot about the moral qualities that give meaning to the Wire. Most of the games you cite lack any moral content whatsoever. As such, they won’t have much to say about the Wire. Central to the wire is the moral choices the characters make as they live their lives. In the end, they all have to live with themselves (see McNulty, Lester, Daniels, Omar, Mouzone, Carver, Bubbles). Even if some of them play out losing hands and their actions will ultimately have no effect on the city itself, they each have to carry it for themselves. After all, the opening song is about walking the straight and narrow path. Most videogames offer little of this, or only cursory accounts of this. I think there’s a videogame called God that lets you rule over people that worship you, and you send bountiful harvests or ravaging storms. Anyway, since you know more about this than I do, I’d like to hear what you have to say about the morality line and the narrative techniques.

  15. 15 marc

    One more item about the structure of the Wire episodes.

    Each episode of the Wire seems structured around parallel lessons between different social groups, police and criminals, police and teachers, etc.:

    ‘soft eyes’ – as needed for detective greggs and new teacher pryzbelewski (sp?).

    *spoiler alert*
    Example from s4e1: intro quote: lambs to the slaughter: prez gets broken in as new teacher, brodie gets broken into ‘the new world,’ randy gets broken in unknowingly, lex gets led to the literal slaughter, and carcetti gets broken in to new level campaigning. And the whole episode opens and closes with a poker game. It’s not the most structure in the world, but there’s enough there to make it flow together. Another trick the directors employ is using similar visuals to tie the end of one scene to the opening of another, but then again, I think the way they vary director from episode to episode makes this happen only occassionally.

    Here’s more fodder for you: “No one wins. One side just loses more slowly.” s4e4.

    “You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way.” s4e4. Make of that what you will.

  16. 16 Luca

    Hi Jason, im an italian student of sociology and since i loved The Wire so much i thought it could very well be the subject of my thesis as it has a verry sociological approach analyzing society by its institutions. Found the article very interesting and inspiring, i shared some of the stuff you wrote while some other was totally new and deep. Thanks for the great read,
    Luca

  17. I came by here just by looking up the term ‘procedural television’ in Google. I’ve never watched The Wire, but I’ve heard a lot of buzz from a small assembly of dedicated fans.

    I find that modern television has slowly evolved and become more sophisticated in its narrative styling. Even a show like ‘Friends’ (among many modern examples), a sitcom that typically consists of stand-alone episodes, incorporates longer story arcs, probably more centered on the ebb and flow of romantic relationships than anything.

    I think there’s been a cultural paradigm shift when it comes to television in that the audience now expects their favorite characters to have longer background narratives that span episodes and even seasons, even if they’re only mildly consequential. The surge of season cliffhangers, whether in dramas or comedies, also shows there’s a conscious effort to draw stories out and keep viewers interested in the show long term.

    The Wire is just an example of taking that long narrative to the extreme with very few precedents.

    Great article. Sorry I was late for the party.

  18. Jason,

    This is a really engrossing essay. I hope the published version reflects season 5 as well, as I think it could add another dimension to your argument to consider the arc of the whole series and the wonderful final episode.

    For the podcast, I suggest we plan on talking about [[The Wire]] and [[Lost]], since both are featured articles and you’re very familiar with both from a television studies perspective. Maybe [[Veronica Mars]] would also be a good one to discuss; it’s typical of the larger pool of well-developed but not featured articles. You might also pick a few shows that you’re interested in that have less developed Wikipedia coverage.

    • Oh yeah, one more thing, vis-a-vis The Wire’s realism and authenticity. It’s essentially a 1990s authenticity (when Simon was a reporter), as opposed to the nominal setting in the 2000s (notwithstanding the minor plot points the turn on more recent technology).

      As Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) noted on Twitter in response to Simon’s recent testimony to Congress about the newspaper industry: “David Simon should have told the Senate why he portrayed a world without the Web in The Wire, season 5″.


  1. 1 The Wire as a Video Game? « The Wire F*cking Fan Club
  2. 2 Game interfaces for academic writing? « Just TV
  3. 3 Des Temps → Blog Archive → The Wire: Social Structure and Omar’s Piggy Bank
  4. 4 More with Less - The Wire 5.1 « Just TV
  5. 5 The Wire « Library etc.
  6. 6 Des Temps → Blog Archive → The Wire: Social Structure and Omar’s Piggy Bank
  7. 7 information. games. » Blog Archive » Games & New Media influencing Old Media
  8. 8 All the pieces matter: analysis, essays, and anything else on The Wire « the readjack.com blog
  9. 9 One Episode of The Wire, What You Know About Dope? « A Shot of Incilin
  10. 10 Getting Real with The Wire: Nobody Wins « Talking Television…
  11. 11 Dexter: A Study in Contradiction « Talking Television…
  12. 12 Institutional Drive and how “The Wire” Converts it to Reality « Talking Television…
  13. 13 Birthday Blogging « Just TV
  14. 14 The Qualities of Complexity: Aesthetic Evaluation in Contemporary Television « Just TV

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