There are many reasons to love the no longer broadcasting television show The Wire, David Simon’s extraordinary series on HBO. The dialogue is exquisite —well timed, poetic, hilarious. The characters — from those more or less front and center to those on the fringes — are surprising, full of impossibly human nuance, wit, and grace. There’s the pathos, so refreshingly bereft of bathos, of cliché sentimentality: The Wire is not afraid to kill a character you love and in ignoble ways. There’s astute cultural critique as the show is relentless in its critical assessment of contemporary American capitalism and bureaucracy.
I love all these aspects but what really gets me, what stirs me, is that the show never reduces. It never caricaturizes. On the contrary, it proliferates and creates. Take the title: The Wire. Presumably — or at least nominally — the title refers to the wiretap the detectives use to listen to criminal conversations made on the phone, in an office, in a car.
Now this wire offers the promise of revelation: what hides will be brought forth. And with it, justice. And, sure enough, thanks to the wire the police are privy to information they most definitely would not have had.
But what is revealed is not a conspiracy or fact or mastermind. What is revealed is a vast network of individuals, motivations, and monies. Rather than The Wire leading to a truth, it opens up a network beyond truth and falsity. Rather than the wire giving way to a climactic a ha!, it gives way to an infinite web of and this, too. The wire is not the thing that clarifies; it is the thing that obfuscates, complicates, proliferates. The wire, then, is not the wire but the infinity of wires that constitute this elaborate network. The wire does not lead in; it leads sideways.
Just as the wiretap gives way to a vast network, so does this seemingly direct title. The wire refers to the high wire — of Jimmy McNulty, of Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell, of Bubbles and Bunk, all these men — and one woman, the inimitable Kima —who walk a thin line high above the ground with no net to catch them.
The wire refers to what David Simon calls “the end of the American Empire”: we are down to the wire, to our last legs, our last gasp.
The wire refers to this message itself, the show an elaborate telegram sent over the wire: this is the end, our culture is unsustainable. Wake up!
The wire is the connection that links different walks of life together — the cops, the dealers, the schools, the ports, the press, the politicians (only this wire connects us while keeping us infinitely distant).
And the wire winds right into our homes — the wire is television, that great, misunderstood medium. And once there, it opens up, flowers, extends itself. Most television programs take precise aim, delivering a particular product to a particular demographic. The shows are pat; the jokes and drama and characters canned. But not The Wire. The Wire , once inside the house, expands rather than contracts.
And this, I want to say, is the promise of television as a medium. In what other medium might such complexity be articulated? Perhaps a novel. But a novel —or really any book —has a certain linearity. Sentences move left to right, which means only one thing, can be revealed at a time. The image, however, enjoys the allatonceness of the network, articulating the complexity of non–causal yet intimately intertwined relations.
So why not film? I don’t think so, at least not the film we are used to: the 100––minute spectacle. The complexity of The Wire takes time; it needs to endure, to wind its many tendrils this way and that. And that is the purview of television. Television endures.
The Wire performs what television can formally be, what it formally wants to be, how it wants to go. Television is not suited for the climax and dénouement that Hollywood loves so much. We watch television after work, in our pajamas, in our most intimate settings; it is intertwined with our lives. Television is not up there; it’s right here, in our living rooms.
And it returns, like a satellite. It is not a cinematic spectacle but an image engine that lives amongst us. And this allows it the freedom to linger, to live a life as complex as our own. To not just rise and fall but to drift, to move sideways. Of course, most television shows enter the house already dead. But that is not the fault of television; that is a mis––use of the medium. (This is not to say that all programs the deliver closure are not good or are unworthy; I am not as much passing judgment as I am exploring the relationship between media and programming of media.)
Television can sprawl like only the epic novel can, like only a life can. But, unlike the novel, television’s sprawl need not be epic. It can deliver something quite small, a glimmer, a fragment, a gesture. And, over time, these small moments can begin to make connections with each other, to form constellations of character, narrative, affect, mood, insight. Over time, the show becomes a life —complex, messy, multivalent.
And this… is the promise of television.
Television is the progenitor of the network, shifting the very architecture of image construction and consumption. As television winds into our house, the image loses it monumental status. It is no longer up there on the big screen; it’s next to the microwave or couch or bookshelf. It streams images in fragments, a bit here, a bit there, but over and over again. And this allows it to build complex connections between things, to wind and meander, to linger, to spin off, to follow a tangent and then forget it, to assemble complex shapes of moments. In television, the story has no need to move forward. It is just as likely to follow tangents.
This is why — among other reasons, such as cost effectiveness — that reality television has become so prominent. Reality TV marks the absolute death of the monument; the image has become any day, anywhere, anybody. This doesn’t mean reality television shows are good or bad; I am not passing judgment. What I am saying is that reality television articulates its medium — it moves sideways, through assembled fragments and moments, free of narrative linearity and apogees.
While The Wire conjures classical drama as well as Hill Street Blues, while it takes from Dickens, Burroughs, and Richard Prince, The Wire remains thoroughly of its medium. I see The Wire as picking up where Twin Peaks left off. Both shows exploit the medium. They don’t deliver nuggets, packages, like so many Twinkies. No, they move in and wiggle around, right next to us. They dole out fragments and connections; they multiply, proliferate, and wind; they link, connect, and suture in surprising ways. They build complexity within each scene as well as over time.
Rather then moving towards a single point on the horizon The Wire expands and proliferates. And this, I want to say, is the promise of television.