Narrative Complexity, Large Casts, And The Assigning Of Significance in The Wire

16 Nov

Throughout our study of The Wire our class discussion and readings have both included references to the show’s inherent complexity and its ability to pull together narrative threads from diverse strata of society. Professor Jagoda described the show as a purveyor of a network aesthetic that presents “a distributed system of social relations instead of focusing on a dominant protagonist.” Everyone is rightfully enamored with The Wire’s deft juggling of so many characters without any need for the grounding of a major protagonist. However, I have been concerned that it is easy to assign more meaning to this formal success than might be warranted. It is certainly true that bringing the sprawling yet focused narrative of the long novel to a tele-visual format is impressive. Getting viewers to remain invested and engaged with a cast of over 30 “central” characters is a feat. I wonder though if many of the claims as to The Wire’s formal achievements could easily be assigned to other works with completely different subject matter but just as large and similarly attended to casts of characters.

A sprawling ensemble drama’s essential storytelling method is the element of random connection and chance between different people in the world. Works as varied as Cloud Atlas and Babel define themselves by connecting different figures’ lives, often distanced through time and space but still relevant to each other. Indeed even the new series of mainstream Hollywood holiday pictures featuring as many stars as possible packed in to one 90-minute experience (see Valentine’s Day, New Year’s) have as their central conceit the joy of seeing characters you thought were unrelated bump in to each other and have a special moment. The Wire works off of this same narrative thrill with details such as Theresa D’Agostino’s seeing McNulty and also consulting Carcetti, or when Brother Mouzone’s henchman happens to look for Omar in a gay bar that Deputy Commissioner Rawls is in. The fact that the show is exceedingly aware of its focus on social networks and their intricacies doesn’t change the fact that it seems that there is something inherent to any narrative that tries to give attention to a deep cast of characters that its stories will necessarily include then a meditation on the inter-connectedness of life. Otherwise what unity does the lens of the storyteller have? If you abandon explicit linear importance than still some kind of greater hinted at connection between figures is necessary, or else the story becomes a generalized pastiche without structure or significance.

Perhaps the source of my reservations comes from a constant preponderance of the fact that The Wire is at the end of the day a fictional construct. Is couching an intricate web of connections in the real structures of Baltimore that much different than doing so in the complex mythological web of associations we find in LOST? My hope is that The Wire has proven that television drama is capable of these layers and will encourage further experimentation because I do believe there is a treasure trove of joy to be found in these kinds of deeply structured and challenging narratives. But at the same time simply doing so with an amount of realism for me falls short of qualification as tremendous artistic achievement.  

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