Building a Better Panopticon: “The Wire” as Melodrama

Linda Williams argues that the strength of "The Wire" lies not in its commitment to Dickensian narrative or Greek tragedy, but its melodrama.

By Noah BerlatskyAugust 18, 2014

On "The Wire" by Linda Williams. Duke University Press Books. 280 pages.

THE WIRE is often cited as the greatest television show ever — so great, in fact, that it transcends television and moves on up into more rarefied realms of aesthetic quality. The show has been compared most insistently to Dickens, but David Simon himself has suggested parallels with Melville and Greek tragedy. The particular analogy is perhaps less the point than the mere fact that the show bursts the banal bonds of Newton Minow’s much-denigrated “vast wasteland.”

In On The Wire, film scholar Linda Williams pushes back against that conventional wisdom. The Wire’s greatness, she argues, isn’t because of its literary or classical dramatic qualities. Rather, The Wire is great because of the way it uses and expands upon the resources of serial television melodrama. As Williams says, “in seeking to articulate what is so exceptional about The Wire, I shall argue that it is first necessary to appreciate what is conventional about it: seriality, televisuality, and melodrama.”

That last one, melodrama, is perhaps the most important for Williams. Melodrama, she says, is often seen as a particularly artificial mode, complete with mustache-twirling villains, weeping heroines, and exclamation-strewn intertitles. In contrast, The Wire is seen as valuable because it is true to life and nuanced. It is not like other television, in part, because it is not artificial. It is authentic.

Williams argues that this fundamentally misunderstands melodrama — a genre that she sees as central to the democratic experience and project. Her book is not just about rethinking The Wire, but also about using The Wire to rethink melodrama, and therefore as a way to rethink, or re-understand, the democratic values to which The Wire is committed. Her reading of The Wire, therefore, starts with the insight that melodrama is not artificial, but is actually a quintessentially realist genre. As a definition she states, “melodrama always offers the contrast between how things are and how they could be, or should be.” She adds, “This is its fundamental utopianism” — but it is also its fundamental realism. Melodrama, in Dickens or Harriet Beecher Stowe, relies upon a vision of the world as it is in order to imagine, or create, a vision of the world as it ought to be.

Williams contrasts melodrama in particular to classical tragedy, where the heroes “face up to the way things are — to being the ‘playthings of the gods.’” For Williams, tragedy is iconically aristocratic and conservative; it is based on the acceptance of hierarchy and power as immutable constants. Melodrama, on the other hand, is, again, a liberal, democratic mode, in which suffering is presented as unnecessary if only the authorities, and indeed the viewers, would commit to change. Melodrama is therefore the essential genre of democratic discourse. When activists on the left point to Trayvon Martin’s death and call for changes in Stand Your Ground laws, or when activists on the right wave placards touting fetal heartbeats, both are crafting melodramas by pointing to (a version of) reality and holding out the possibility of change. “Melodrama,” Williams says, “belongs to liberalism’s promise of progress, individual self-determination, and the refusal of predetermined fate.”

Simon’s achievement on The Wire, therefore, is not that he has created a tragedy, but that he has created an especially intricate and complicated melodrama. The Wire does not aristocratically call for an acceptance of the war on drugs or racism as inevitabilities to which its characters must resign themselves. Rather, it demands moral commitment and social transformation even as it demonstrates the power and intractability of institutional barriers to change. Bunny Colvin’s efforts to legalize drugs are stymied by the policing and political system as surely as Stringer Bell’s efforts to move out of drugs and into legitimate business are stymied by insurmountable barriers of class. (“They saw your ghetto ass coming from miles away,” as Avon tells him.) The liberal, democratic possibility of individual effort and public transformation is everywhere blocked by neoliberalism, which “so strictly adheres to the operation of a ‘free market’ that only the few, already wealthy, already educated, and mostly white have real opportunity,” according to Williams.

Neoliberalism treats everyone as rationalized economic inputs; it flattens democracy into unitary hierarchy; people become cogs in uncaring institutions. The Wire, Williams suggests, resists neoliberalism in part through the richness and diversity of its melodrama. Williams compares David Simon’s work to anthropology: the careful, layered, nuanced creation of a map of reality that captures both institutions and individuals. Thus, where most cop dramas focus on the cops, The Wire’s focus is broader, including institutions like schools and newspapers, and, also depicting, most significantly, the criminals who in other shows might simply be “bad guys.”

Along the same lines, Williams points out that “What is perhaps most original in the series is that whiteness can no longer represent the norm.” The show is not colorblind — race matters, as just one example, to Carcetti, whose run for mayor is hindered by the fact that he is a white man. But neither does The Wire assume that white experience is central, or normative. McNulty is an important character, but his vision and perspective don’t supersede those of Omar, or Stringer Bell, or Chief Daniels, or Bubbles — each of whose experiences are themselves inflected very differently by race. The Wire embraces difference not in spite of melodrama, but in pursuit of it. The range of experiences grounds the stories’ realism, at the same time as the range of individuals throws into relief the deadening, homogenizing effect of neoliberal and institutional indifference, against which characters as varied as Dukie and Frank Sobotka are broken.

Though Williams doesn’t quite make the connection herself, The Wire’s insistence on representing, and honoring, difference seems related to its ambivalence about surveillance. The title “The Wire” itself refers to surveillance technology, and McNulty and the other detectives are constantly attempting to get up on a wire in order to observe, control, and eventually arrest the drug dealers and murderers they pursue. But, as Williams says, the panoptic dream is repeatedly stymied: “The drug dealers in The Wire are not perfectly ‘docile bodies.’ They resist the apparatus of surveillance in creative ways.” They break cameras, they buy disposable phones — they kill informants. For that matter, even absent resistance, the police surveillance is notably fractured and confused, as when the cops happen not to be listening to the wire when the crucial phone call from their informant Wallace comes through, and so fail to prevent his death.

The failure of omniscience isn’t exactly a good thing — it leads to Wallace’s death, after all, which is arguably the most painful event of the series. But at the same time, the refusal to grant the cops omniscience is vital to what The Wire is doing with the cop show. When the good guys know all — à la Sherlock Holmes or its heirs like Murder, She Wrote, or Bones — then the good guys’ goodness is underwritten and in important respects unquestionable. Knowledge is both power and morality; how do you question the morality of a detective whose command of all moral actions is absolute? If the authorities know everything, then the authorities must know what is right. In contrast, The Wire refuses to provide a single all-knowing, unitary perspective — there is no totalizing rationalization of motive, neoliberal or otherwise. To the observer in The Wire, the observed remain, in important respects, impenetrable.

There is a caveat here, though. The cops may not know all — but we do. The viewer knows when Wallace called; the viewer knows where Marlo Stanfield hides the bodies; the viewer knows when and how Omar dies, and what it means, even as Simon and The Wire emphasize that no one else in the city cares about his anonymous passing. And if the cops do not have the knowledge or the standing to impose an absolute moral judgment or order, the viewer of The Wire does. Williams argues, in fact, that “the dramatic recognition of good and/or evil” is essential to melodrama. The Wire can be seen as a complex engine for generating moral epiphanies; as melodrama, it positions the viewer to recognize and evaluate souls. Bubbles’s triumph over his addiction; Bunny Colvin’s effort to reduce violence through limited drug legalization; Kima’s decision to pull the plug on McNulty’s fake serial killer; or, contrarily, Marlo Stanfield’s amoral violence or Scott Templeton’s careerist journalistic fabrications — we see what each of these characters do, and we are called upon to understand and to judge.

Williams doesn’t engage directly with this meta-dimension of surveillance in The Wire, but she would probably put it in the context of what she — and the show — refers to as “soft eyes.” In The Wire, technological surveillance is contrasted with careful, knowledgeable observation: “soft eyes,” which allow the trained police to uncover the truths of a crime scene. “Soft eyes,” Williams says, “can only grow out of a perceptive, intimate experience of a given situation.” She links “soft eyes” to Pryzbylewski’s work as a high school teacher, and to McNulty’s time as a street policeman after he is busted down from detective. Teachers and beat cops observe, but their gaze is “a more benign form of proximate surveillance that is genuinely protective of the citizenry as a whole.” So too, presumably, the viewer of The Wire sees softly, benignly: we know, but our knowledge is compassionate and empathetic. Those who are seen are understood with love.

Of course, in reality, the surveillance of beat cops and high school teachers is not always necessarily benign or loving. Big Brother always says he is watching you for your own good. The Wire has been praised for its refusal to spoon-feed its audience; the narrative expects, and demands, careful and even repeated viewing. Still, if you are willing to grant that attention, the show is insistently legible; you know, in the end, who the characters are, why they do what they do, and what that means. In tragedy, the acts of the gods are fundamentally unknowable. In a surreal nightmare, like Twin Peaks, reality and psychology blur into an uncertain, albeit suggestive, mystery. But melodrama eschews unknowability and mystery. It makes visible, it systematizes, it clarifies.

That clarity — the depth and breadth of knowledge of Baltimore’s people and plights — is The Wire’s achievement, and it is a breathtaking one. But I think clarity is also the show’s limitation. In the vein of democratic melodrama, The Wire positions its audience as knower, and its characters as essentially knowable. Empathy reaches everywhere — in a process that queasily parallels the perfect neoliberal penetration of capital. Individuality is celebrated, and yet systematically rationalized, unified, and consumed by the singular perspective of the viewer — a process, which, again, seems not far removed from neoliberalism, with its celebration of individual economic actors, all rationalized by and equal before the market.

The Wire extends and elaborates melodrama in remarkable ways. But, as Williams says, melodrama remains a broadly liberal medium — and as Williams doesn’t say, liberalism and neoliberalism are not especially distant cousins. Liberalism can critique neoliberalism for its inequities, its cruelties, and its callousness. But to neoliberalism’s call for data and surveillance, liberalism can only respond with a call for better data and more nuanced surveillance; to neoliberalism’s doctrine of individuality as sameness, liberalism can only offer a deeper individuality subsumed within a deeper sameness. The Wire is undoubtedly one of the greatest melodramas extant, and an object lesson in how powerful the form can be. Its limitations aren’t a failure on the part of its creators so much as an indication that melodrama, having gotten us to this particular liberal democratic impasse, is unlikely, on its own, to get us out.


Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture website the Hooded Utilitarian and is a correspondent for The Atlantic.

LARB Contributor

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941–1948, from Rutgers University Press.


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