How The Wire Is, and Isn't, "Dickensian"

07/02/2014 07:37 am ET Updated Sep 01, 2014

Serial television binge viewing is often justified by comparing it to the addictive fictions of a previous age. We justify our impatience to get back to a familiar world and its characters -- whether they are "breaking bad" or "breaking good" -- by comparing our addiction to the serial fiction of the Victorian era. We are not addicted to television, but to the higher form of literature! Proof is how much our addictions are "just like Dickens," most of whose novels first saw the light of day as eagerly awaited serials. Where I once waited impatiently for my weekly dose of The Wire, slave to the temporal rhythms of weekly hour-long serials on HBO, so Dickens's mid nineteenth century readers waited impatiently for the latest installments of The Pickwick Papers, or Bleak House.

Just as HBO once tried to advertise itself by claiming to be other than television ("It's Not TV, It's HBO"), so we like to think our addiction to television serials transcends lowly television. But David Simon, The Wire's creator, not one to be outdone by comparisons, has always avoided the term "Dickensian." He reaches higher, comparing his work to Moby Dick, or even more grandiosely, to Greek tragedy.

Of course, Simon's serial does not resemble Melville (even if we compare whale procedurals to police procedurals), or Sophocles (who wrote some trilogies but no serials). Though Simon reaches for a gravitas beyond Dickens, the comparison endures for one good treason: Both The Wire and Dickens have emerged from the mass of works created in the mode of serial melodrama as the supreme popular art of their era.

"The Wire has been considered more realistic, less melodramatic, than Dickens."

Dickens was one of many writers in a newly industrialized publishing industry that had only recently learned the secret of serial sales: hook an audience on a steady stream of cheap parts and they will faithfully buy each new installment when they might not have bought a more expensive whole novel. Simon too was one of many show runners in a new age of prime-time, cable serials. Both produced a wide range of memorable characters belonging to every social class with special attention to the unjust fates of the lower classes at the mercy of cruel economic systems (early capitalism in Dickens, late capitalism in The Wire).

But unlike Dickens, who would often solve narrative problems by discovering that an Oliver Twist or an Esther Summer actually belongs to a higher class than presumed, The Wire has been considered more realistic, less melodramatic, than Dickens.

And this is the reason that David Simon loathes the comparison to Dickens. Dickensian to Simon means contrived happy endings, pure villains and victims and a failure to address the deepest social problems that keep the underclass down. In the fifth and final season of The Wire, having heard one too many glowing comparisons of his series to Dickens, Simon created a venal, white, patrician senior editor at the Baltimore Sun, Charles Whiting, Jr., who demotes the responsible and hard working black city editor, Gus Haynes. The patrician editor also cancels a planned series of stories on education and instead urges a junior reporter to develop the "Dickensian aspects" of a story about homelessness. This reporter writes a virtuous-victim story about a homeless Iraq vet suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which is entirely fabricated. On the basis of his "Dickensian" fictions, the reporter will win a Pulitzer Prize.

Thus did David Simon have his sweet revenge on the bosses who once killed his story on metal scavingers at the Baltimore Sun because his writing was not "Dickensian" enough. Thus did he show how his own more deeply contextualized institutional-level reporting was devalued by his own institution. Ironically, however, in this season especially, Simon deploys the familiar hackneyed tools of "old fashioned" melodrama -- uncomplicated victims, such as the black city editor, and villains, such as the lying reporter -- in order to condemn the Dickensian project of telling stories with overdrawn victims and villains!

In this fifth season we are invited to hiss the villain and root for the downtrodden city editor, though of course, The Wire is too "realistic" to let the downtrodden city editor triumph. Such a happy ending would simply be too Dickensian. But what Simon really objects to in the epithet "Dickensian" is the happy ending that produces moral clarity too easily, as in the hollow triumph of virtue that occurs simply because of a personal change of heart. The "nice old uncle" or guardian who comes along in the end to "fix things" is Simon's true objection to Dickens.

What gets "fixed" in the Dickensian happy ending is only the fate of the few "good" people who were already born to middle class or better status anyway. If Dickens could brilliantly display the flawed workings of a single institution -- say the Inns of Court in Bleak House -- he could not show us the struggles between and within the institutions. This is what The Wire does -- it reinvents melodrama at the institutional level.

"In its most overtly melodramatic season, The Wire shows us a way out of the limits of the nineteenth century Dickensian melodrama. There is no good-hearted uncle to fix what is wrong for individual misfortune."

In its most overtly melodramatic season, The Wire shows us a way out of the limits of the nineteenth century Dickensian melodrama. There is no good-hearted uncle to fix what is wrong for individual misfortune, or if such a person emerges, we are made aware of how limited a solution this is. Ultimately, The Wire is about individuals grappling with inherently corrupt institutions who, at best, may claim small victories. The Wire makes us care whether the police can do more than merely catch bodies or make drug rips, or whether the unions can avoid corruption, or whether the city government can decide who needs the most funding, police or schools, or whether media can report the truth of what happens in the city.

None of these institutions can deeply recognize what is just and good in its own operation, despite the many individuals who try. This is the basis of the series' famous anger, and realism. But these features are not anathema to melodrama. Melodrama does not demand a happy ending, though Dickens's readers did. It merely demands an awareness of what would be just.

By the end of The Wire we find a city that remains in the grip of self-serving, short-sighted careerist police, ever-more ruthless gangsters, a corrupt city government that will always "disappoint," schools where the best an individual teacher can do is control a class and encourage a kid or two, and a media that misses most of the important stories that The Wire has already told. But this does not mean that old-fashioned 19th century melodrama has given way to 21st century realism. It only means that, like all melodrama, new forms of realism expose new problems for more realistic melodrama to be outraged about.

The Wire's added dimension of the institutional level of melodrama, meshed with the stories of truly diverse social strata, is the most bravura achievement of The Wire. It is the day-to-day workings of these institutions, at the nitty-gritty level of budgets, drug profits, political horse-trading, editorial practices -- not private loves, kindly uncles, or personal villains -- that determine fates. Popular melodrama is a heart-rending mode we may think we are too good for but which pulls us back again and again to heavily plotted stories of the battle between good and evil.

The alternative to Dickensian melodrama is not, as Simon thinks, the bleak austerity of Greek tragedy, nor the allegory of a great white whale. It is better, modern melodrama -- one that even grants an occasional happy ending to a particular individual without betraying its principles of showing the way the "game is rigged" against the poor and black. The Wire thus is, and isn't, Dickensian. More properly, it is serial television melodrama in which good and evil are raised beyond the personal to the institutional level. If Dickens represented the great serial melodrama of his time, The Wire represents the great serial melodrama of our own.

Correction (7/4/2014 8:38 am EST): This post stated incorrectly that David Simon was fired from the Baltimore Sun. The author apologizes to Mr. Simon for the error.