Since the first day of class, I’ve been more than a little curious to get to our discussion of The Wire. Frankly, when I registered for this course I wasn’t really expecting to be close reading a television show as a piece of literature. So once the first disc of The Wire worked its way to the top of my Netflix cue, I popped it in with mixed expectations. I had heard a lot of good things about the show, but I’d never tried to get into it. I suppose this is mostly because, as a television viewer, I’m far too erratic to keep up with who’s on American Idol, much less keep up with a complicated plot line from week to week. This restricts me to episodic scooby-doo style programs, where each episode nicely resolves and leaves me right back where I started, making me more a watcher of Seinfeld than of The Sopranos. Irrelevant personal tangent aside, I didn’t know what to expect.
After watching season one, I certainly liked the show very much and thought it was well shot and the acting was top notch and the story was fascinating and ect. ect. etc. But what I didn’t quite get was how this very good television show fit into the category of literature. Not trying to demean the show (did I mention I liked it a lot?) but I wasn’t clear on why I should call this literature. Perhaps I’m just using a new stick to beat a long-dead horse by returning to the “What is Literature” question, but I feel like we should have a very solid answer before we move forward in giving The Wire a full literary workup. I like lists, so I tried to make one of all the things in The Wire that I would say make it literary:
1. Complicated plot line – A standard element in most traditional literary works, The Wire certainly excels here, which seems to lend credit to its claim to literariness (side note: does this word seem made up to anyone else? It’s in the OED but literariness? Really?). But then again, it is 13 hours long, so a complex plotline is rather necessary. LOST is complicated but I'm not sure it's literary (but that's another show I've never watched so perhaps I'm speaking out of line) so I'm not sure how much weight plot complexity holds.
2. Meaningful Dialogue – I’m questionable on this one. While occasionally the dialogue is really deep and insightful (see: when D’Angelo teaches Wallace and Bodie how to play chess http://tinyurl.com/ytgex6 ) I’d say maybe 15% of the dialogue falls into that category, and that’s being generous. A lot of the dialogue is just there to keep the story moving, and 99% of it is devoid of poetic language, imagery, or any literary technique. So while dialogue doesn’t disqualify The Wire as literary, it doesn’t really add much strength to its case either.
3. Character Development – this is another strength of The Wire, it really manages to juggle a lot of characters at once, but also show character development and growth over the course of the season. Some characters are very static, like Avon, Stringer, Major Rawls, and most of the upper level police. But other characters are extremely dynamic, such as D’Angelo, Prezbylewski, McNulty, and Lt. Daniels who all end the season with very different outlooks that they started with.
4. Relevance to Society – this is another huge one, actually, it’s probably the central piece of evidence in a case for the literariness of The Wire. Obviously the creators of The Wire have a lot they want to say to us about our nation’s drug laws, police bureaucracy, inner city living conditions, and about ten other social issues. That makes the show incredibly relevant to our lives today, which could make it literature in the same way that Common Sense or Areopagitica are literature, an artistic commentary on socio-political issues.
Four points is as far as I got, partially out of concern for length/boringness but mostly because I couldn’t really think of any more good ones. You can’t really talk about imagery in the literary way because, well, the show is images. We have to draw a line there, lest we have to discuss the poetic devices of photographs or the lighting of sonnets (although strangely poetry and photography seem to share a lot of terms: juxtaposition, contrast, balance. Interesting thought there). Same for music, cinematography, and acting, they just don’t really translate.
So overall I’m still sitting on the fence on whether or not I consider The Wire a work of literature, but I’m leaning towards yes because I have a feeling Krzys has a pretty compelling argument for us. But nonetheless, I’d like to see your responses/replies/counterarguments, you RE:-ers out there.