'The Wire' and the Realism Canard

by Noah Berlatsky


David Simon’s The Wire, which is set to soon be re-broadcast in high definition, continues to be hailed, in some corners, as the greatest television show of all time. In an effort to elevate it to the level of high art, many critics (including Simon himself) have reached for comparisons with other, less lumpen forms, from Greek tragedy to Dickens — anything, in short, that isn’t a television show. But Linda Williams, a professor of film studies and rhetoric at Berkeley, in her new book, On The Wire, thinks that the show’s greatest accomplishment is its use of melodrama. I talked to Williams last month about melodrama and realism, and how they shape people’s view of the show.

You argue in your book that The Wire is a melodrama, and that, contrary to popular opinion, melodrama is a form that is tied to, or makes use of, realism.

I liked Isaac Butler’s essay on the “realism canard” quite a bit. As he says, many people believe that something is great because it’s true or because it’s accurate. My point of departure for thinking about The Wire in a different way was precisely when Julius Wilson and some other sociologists published something in Critical Inquiry arguing, I thought kind of solipsistically, that the Wire was great because it was accurate according to their sociology. Yes, that is one of the great things about The Wire. But if we stop there, we fall into what Butler calls the realism canard, which is to say that the best fictional works are those that are the most factual, and that’s certainly not the case.

What does that have to do with melodrama?

I tried to define melodrama as that which is very good at absorbing new forms of realism in order to try to make claims for justice and for arguing on the part of those whose voices have not been heard. Melodrama is a machine for the production of new kinds of apparent truth. I know that many people, if they hear me say that The Wire is melodrama, will say, “Oh no! It’s great! It’s good! It’s true! It can’t be melodrama!” It’s easy to recognize melodrama in old melodrama. It’s harder to recognize it in the new, because it always seems so true.

So I wonder what you think of Pam Newton’s argument that one of the ways that The Wire is not true to life is that it downplays police corruption?

Truth is always from some subjective point of view. If you read David Simon’s Homicide, which is one of the two books of non-fiction which feeds into the lore and the data of The Wire — Simon just loves those cops. He was like a twenty-four-year-old reporter who got to follow the cops around and go drinking with them, and I think that there are ways in which he is blind to things that were wrong with the police. But he knows a lot about the cops and their ways, and he knows a lot about the drug dealers and their ways. Because he did a year long study of both that was ethnography. And then he loves them — more than he loves the politicians, for example.

You referred to David Simon’s methods as ethnography, and I was thinking about Christina Sharpe’s piece in The New Inquiry, where she talks about Alice Goffman’s On the Run and the ethical issues raised by urban ethnography. Sharpe suggests for example that studying black people and policing black people are often part of a single continuum of control. Is The Wire a way of rationalizing and controlling and consuming the lives of certain black communities, in the interest of letting white people say, “I understand them now”?

I understand that criticism. And I certainly understand the criticism of the anthropologist, the journalist, the ethnographer, who goes to the foreign culture and tries to understand it, and then gets praised for their own marvelous understanding of that which would be beyond the pale if we didn’t have that mediating white voice to present things. That’s precisely what I think is less good about David Simon’s journalism, and great about The Wire: The journalism is full of this kind of white interpretive voice that really does see an us and a them. The thing I quote from his early journalism, where he says, “The ants are here. The picnic is us,” in that piece called “The Metal Men,” there it is: The ants are the people he’s studying, the drug addicts, and “the picnic is us” — our houses in Baltimore, we propertied middle-class white people.

I think you’re suggesting that there are ways in which The Wire has not totally divested itself of that voice, and you may be right. But it’s done it better precisely because we lose David Simon’s voice, and we get Bubbles, Colvin, everybody else. I would say that The Wire is more exempt from that criticism than most other works of the imagination that try to get into a culture of the other. There is a criticism of melodrama there that is well-founded, though; melodrama is what we’re stuck with here.

We’re stuck with melodrama because that’s what The Wire is doing?

No. We’re stuck with melodrama because it’s what the culture does. It is our lingua franca of popular entertaining culture. These are the stories that we tell ourselves, in the broadest sense. Melodrama is limited; all it can do is point out these discrepancies in justice. There is a little democratic impasse that is inherent to melodrama. And yes, you can get ironic in melodrama — there are ways to handle it, but it is a limit. We want to identify and identify with the people to whom injustice is done. The only problem with that is that can end up being the white people in Birth of a Nation. Melodrama does not have a progressive ideology necessarily.

In Birth of a Nation you identify with the Klan as the victims of injustice?

Yes, it’s the former slaveowners who are oppressed by the former slaves. So that’s the limit of melodrama. But I think it’s important to identify the works that move us, and that grab us so well, as melodrama, and then study the way it operates. Rather than to always say, it’s not melodrama, it’s real, it’s true. Or, Simon’s way of doing it, which is to say it’s tragedy.

So would you identify ethnography as a kind of melodrama?

That’s a good question. I think in many cases it is. Why do you become an ethnographer? It’s because you want to understand disappearing cultures. I know that’s a simplification. But you want to go travel to the Amazon and learn the language of the people who are disappearing because their culture cannot operate in this world. That kind of salvage ethnography is a kind of melodrama — “I’m going to do something to save them” — and that saving comes through a kind of understanding of the meaning and the logic of that culture.

I know you feel The Wire was fairly successful in its treatment of race. I wondered what you thought about Orange Is The New Black, and whether it is as successful in your opinion?

I do gather that Orange Is the New Black is the hot new thing for many of the same reasons that The Wire was valued. It is of course interesting that it begins, and builds around, this white character — the person who would be like the voice of David Simon in his journalism. Its feat is to be able to take her away some of the time and to let everything else run on its own, at which point you do have a story about a very diverse collection of people, representing an underclass that does not normally get represented. I think it’s obviously a melodrama, and a pretty good one, although broader, more caricatured, than The Wire ever was.

Finally, I wanted to ask you about the controversy with David Simon. You wrote a piece for the Huffington Post where you said he’d been fired from the Baltimore Sun, and then had to correct after Simon explained that he had not been fired. Could you explain what happened there? How did you make that mistake?

I said that in the blog; I never said it in the book, because in the book I had carefully gone over it. It’s my fault in the sense that I didn’t take blogs very seriously; I’d never written one. I was invited to by the Huffington Post to write about Dickens and The Wire. I hope this doesn’t insult you, but I thought, “Who reads blogs?” So I just sloppily used an old draft, and kind of simplified my thinking. I did think that he had been fired at one point, but then I did more research, and I realized that he wasn’t fired. He quit. And he didn’t just quit; he took a buyout. Nobody ever impugned his value as a reporter, though the editors did disagree with his way of reporting, I insist.

I’m frankly debating whether I should blog back, about this. Just to say, you know, I’m not some academic out to impugn his reputation. I’m trying to understand the evolution of this great thing called The Wire. But maybe I shouldn’t. Blogging doesn’t seem to be my medium.

Noah Berlatsky edits the online comics and culture website the Hooded Utilitarian, and his book on the original Wonder Woman comics will be out in early 2015.