Horatio Ogden’s The Wire

2011 March 24
by kvanaren

I owe many, many thanks to Jason Mittell and others for making sure I noticed this piece from The Hooded Utilitarian – “When It’s Not Your Turn:” The Quintessentially Victorian Vision of Ogden’s “The Wire.” It’s a great essay written by Joy Delyria and Sean Michael Robinson that re-imagines The Wire as a piece of serialized Victorian fiction which, due to its complexity and length, has been nearly lost to academic attention. Some of its best parts are the literal recreations of the show as a serial novel, including the excellent illustration of Omar walking down a narrow street (I would pay good money for a poster of it), and the hilarious novelization of the famous one-word Bunk/McNulty scene from season one. A taste:

“Mr Moreland – having more stake in the proceedings, or rather less interest in pursuing what amounted to, in his opinion, a goose chase the likes of which only Mr McNulty would subject himself – put his cigar in his mouth and looked down at the sketches which they had obtained from Scotland Yard. Years of detective work such as this had compelled Mr Moreland into an attitude of complaisance; in most investigations his attitude was one of general affability and a charming lack of anything like concern. As he flipped through the sketches, however, he tok out his cigar, and his tone was exactly that of a child at last being forced to chores when he said: “Aw, fuck.”

Many of the strongest comparative points relate to The Wire‘s characterization, especially when the essay describes the relative complexity of someone like Jimmy McNulty in contrast with the typically idealized Dickensian protagonist. I also love the description of Omar as potently literary character, full of myth and the Gothic and something extra-human. I am totally on board with the image of Omar walking straight out of a Victorian serial, except where the article suggests Omar would be incompatible in a Dickens novel, I think he’d be perfect. Particularly in his later novels, Dickens loved playing with moments that border on magic, betraying his interest in the more supernatural sensational novels of colleagues like Wilkie Collins. In Bleak House, the illiterate Krook dies of spontaneous combustion, covering his eerie rag and bone shop with human slime and exposing the immense collection of legal documents which he collected obsessively but could not actually read. At the end of Little Dorrit, as the secrets and betrayals which led to poor Dorrit’s deprived childhood are finally revealed, the house where they were hidden actually collapses, as though the secrets were the only things holding it together. Surely this would be perfectly in keeping with Omar’s ability to exist outside the laws of The Wire‘s obsessively realistic nature – he walked away from a jump out of a fourth story window!

The essay’s conceit – the close relationship between a television show like The Wire and the Victorian serial novel – is something I’m pretty invested in, and am absolutely thrilled to see starting to show up as an area of interest. But because I feel like it’s so important, and also so completely apt, I do just want to point out a few places where I don’t want people who think about TV to get some misconceptions of the Victorian serial. My previous point about Omar as a feasible Dickens character is interpretive and up for debate, but this other quibble is more straightforward.

Robinson and Delyria suggest that Dickens was able to write his serial novels using installments as individually contained pieces of narrative, much like the television episode. “Each installment,” they write, “contained a series of elements engineered to give the reader the satisfaction of a complete arc, giving the reader the sense of an episode, complete with a beginning, middle, and end.” There are certainly some authors who play with the installment as a constraining, rule-bound form, and Dickens is one of them, although his installments are less strictly constructed than someone like Collins’s. Even in the most regular, formulaic examples of installment construction, though, no Victorian installment comes close to the kind of episodic structure that underlies a television show, and I think it would be incredibly hard to point to more than one or two installments in any given novel that have anything like a “beginning, middle, and end.” I bring this up because it’s my bugaboo (read: enormously crucial to my dissertation), but also because I don’t want the collapse between serial fiction in novels and serial fiction in television to happen without keeping alive some of the qualities that simply do not translate from one medium to the other – and the episode is one of them.

As a side point, for anyone who thinks that Victorian novels never achieve The Wire‘s bleakness or dark characterization, please read some Thomas Hardy. Although his focus is more on human nature and less on the institutions which provide the framework for David Simon’s pessimism, I guarantee you will walk away as depressed and fatalistic as the day you finished The Wire.

All that said, “When It’s Not Your Turn” is fantastic, and I’m not joking about wanting that poster. Seriously. Name your price.

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