The 'World Enough and Time' of The Wire

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary the first known use of the word serial was in 1840, as would seem appropriate to an industrial era beginning to mass produce parts to assemble into new kinds of wholes. The first definition reads: "relating to, consisting of, or arranged in a series, rank or row," and the second, "appearing in successive parts or numbers" as in a "serial story." Two later definitions suggest in their examples how seriality has been valued: a series of similar acts over a period of time, as in a serial killer, or a serial murder.

To a culture that values originality as the quintessence of autonomous artistic expression, seriality has been devalued. Linked to rote, compulsive (or even criminal) repetitions, stories told in parts have been associated with comic strips, soap operas and other low generic forms of mass culture. The very fact that such works were produced and consumed in "parts" proved how little they could stand up to the traditional classical values of an original whole.

And yet, many artists and consumers have recognized that serial "parts" have a power and expressivity beyond the limits of mass-produced, genre-driven storytelling, even if many of these works rely on familiar genres as frameworks. As we are beginning to learn through the example of the "quality" television serial, serial storytelling may now form an essential component of contemporary American life. But quality, in this sense, does not mean the transcendence of mass culture or of television itself (as in HBO's slogan, "It's Not TV. It's HBO"). Rather, it exploits the two qualities that television has always had in abundance: world (the very term tele-vision means far-seeing -- access to far flung worlds); and time (unlike movies and discrete television episodes, these serials can go on for 60, 90 or more hours spanning years of narrative time).

World and time: Television has always had the possibility of both, but has never before put them together so well. The news can flit from one crisis location to another. The soap opera can leisurely linger in just one convoluted fictional world (usually a small town). But putting multiple worlds and abundant time together is the key innovation of contemporary serial television. In his lovely poem, "To His Coy Mistress," Andrew Marvel imagines an ideal access to both world and time to woo his lady: "Had we but world enough, and time,/This coyness, lady, were no crime." Coyness, however, is a crime when lover and mistress have neither. In contemporary cable television, in contrast to Marvel's highly compressed poem, there can be "world enough and time" -- for love, for sex, for birth, for death, for maturation and for all the slow changes of identity through duration in time. In their rich diversity of storyworlds and abundance of narrative time, our contemporary television serials can do what the poet could only dream of.

Soap operas had too much time but not enough world. They squandered time -- on soap commercials, on household rhythms, on narratives that meandered but rarely added up. In contrast, the alpha male mid-life crises that figure in serials as diverse as Mad Men (AMC, 2007-2015), The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007), Six Feet Under (HBO, 2001-2005), Battlestar Galactica (Sci-Fi Channel, 2004-2009), Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008-2013), The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008) and House of Cards (Netflix, 2013-) work hard -- sometimes too hard! -- to disavow their connection to the feminine and never-ending soaps. With a better balance of "world enough and time" these stories offer a new kind of viewing experience that is much faster than the old pace of soaps. And perhaps now, with the popularity of Orange Is the New Black we may finally be seeing an important shift to a female-centered world and even a female way of "doing time."

Serial television, especially the less interrupted versions on cable, is replacing film in popularity because of its capacity for greater world and time. The more inherently serial medium of television, based as it is on both segmentation and flow, once seemed inferior. Film, we thought, was the medium of auteurs; now it is serial television that attracts the best writers and directors. Unlike movies they have world and time for greater complexity. Unlike soaps these stories will end.

This is not to say that all serial television is by definition great. There are many tedious serials that reach their convoluted ends and leave us saying so what? Heroes and Lost, to choose two network examples, wore thin after their initial novelty. And even the shorter cable serials can fail to fully exploit their world and time. Big Love, a much-acclaimed HBO series was an intriguing exploration of religious cults and Mormon polygamy that lost focus, but then gathered itself together for a decent final season. Homeland, a spy melodrama still unfolding, was intriguing to begin with but may have set back Arab-American relations as much as the execrable 24.

The one serial that has fully realized its potential of "world and time" is David Simon's The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008). This serial did not just end, it completed itself. It is the model of excellence for a new kind of uniquely American story that goes to the jugular about what's wrong with our cities, our economy and our very culture even while, like any good melodrama, it roots for justice. I am not alone in admiring this serial. Many television critics and journalists, not to mention the president of the United States, have cited The Wire as the best television series ever. Literary critic Walter Benn Michaels, in a lament about the failure of the American novel to tell stories that matter about the problems that beset the nation, has called it the most "serious and ambitious fictional narrative of the twenty-first century."

In my book, On The Wire, I argue that before making such exalted literary comparisons we should understand that if The Wire is exceptional, its exceptionality does not transcend mass culture, nor does it transcend television or even what is its most fundamental nature: melodramatic serial storytelling.

The Wire is serial, it is television cop show, and it is melodrama, by which I do not mean that it has simplistic "black and white" victims and villains like our old fashioned clichés of that form but, rather, that it is made up of an amalgam of popular genres, all of which belong to the pervasive larger mode of melodrama in its most modern form. The work of melodrama, in contrast to the work of, say, classical tragedy, has fundamentally been that of seeking a better justice. Where tragedy typically operates to reconcile tragic victims with fate, melodrama, no matter how sad the tale, differs from tragedy's acceptance of fate in its belief that good ought to prevail, even if and when it does not. Tragedy is about the knowledge that the gods are against us and that there is no altering grim fate. Melodrama seeks to recognize the good, it wants good to prevail, even when its endings, like so many of the endings in The Wire, are sad. In the especially ambitious case of The Wire, which seeks to recognize not only individual personal good but social and institutional good as well, melodrama becomes the dramatic convention by which social problems and controversies are addressed.

Unlike so many of the other serial melodramas which tell personal stories on a wider canvass of world and time, The Wire remains the best of the best because its world of police connects so directly to the world of drug dealers and these two worlds then connect with unions, city government, schools and media. In doing this, The Wire recalibrates the very meaning of the traditional melodramatic recognition of virtue to an institutional and a personal level.

In The Wire the social canvass is so broad and deep and takes place over so much time, that we come to understand why drugs continue to plague us, why police cannot stop them, why unions no longer offer the hope of better life, why reform fails, why schools fail, and why media can't really tell us about these related stories of people and institutions. And yet at the same time, we also understand the hope that each separate institution has to solve the problems it faces. This hope, in the face of such a deep exploration of failure, is what makes The Wire the best example of serial, television melodrama.

Linda Williams's book, 'On The Wire,' has been published by Duke University Press