“The word I’m thinking about is ‘Dickensian.’ We want to depict the Dickensian lives of city children and then show clearly and concisely where the school system has failed them.”
These words are spoken by James Whiting, the very fictional executive editor of the very real Baltimore Sun on episode two of the fifth season of HBO’s “The Wire.” Whiting is asking his editorial staff to focus their efforts on a new investigative piece on Baltimore’s flagging education system. When certain members of the staff counter that there are many factors contributing to the turmoil of the city’s children, Whiting retorts, “What do you want? An educational project or a litany of excuses? I don’t want some amorphous series detailing society’s ills. If you leave everything in, soon you’ve got nothing.”
“The Wire” itself is sometimes thought of as a show with a Dickensian bent, investigating the social strata of one city, as opposed to one singular character. That may be true to some extent, though the show’s creator, David Simon, might balk at it.
In an interview with Vice, Simon said, “The thing that made me laugh about it with Dickens was that Dickens is famous for being passionate about showing you the fault lines of industrial England and where money and power route themselves away from the poor. He would make the case for a much better social compact than existed in Victorian England, but then his verdict would always be, ‘But thank God a nice old uncle or this heroic lawyer is going to make things better.’ In the end, the guy would punk out.”
This comparison shines through in an oddly brilliant new deconstruction of “The Wire” in a post on The Hooded Utilitarian by Joy Delyria and Sean Michael Robinson. “‘When It’s Not Your Turn’: The Quintessentially Victorian Vision of Ogden’s ‘The Wire’” re-imagines the television show as a serialized Victorian novel written by Horatio Bucklesby Ogden, a fictional contemporary of Dickens. The post presents itself as an essay on the works of Ogden, complete with photocopies of pages from the “original novel.”
Delyria and Robinson note the troubles “The Wire” faced with Victorian readers, which humorously mirror the problems that the show faced with modern viewing audiences: “Though critics lauded it, the general public found the initial installments slow and difficult to get into, while later installments required intimate knowledge of all the pieces which had come before.”
But within the fun and playfulness of this spoof, there is a powerful and succinct argument for why “The Wire” stands apart from modern television shows and from the “Dickensian” literature it is so often compared to:
[T]he number one way in which “The Wire” differs from any other Victorian novel is its bleak moral outlook. Dickens’ works almost always had a handful of characters that were essentially likeable. In the end, the power of love and truth is borne out and the individual triumphs over the ugliness of society by maintaining his integrity. Trollope, Eliot, Gaskell, etc. all wrote with this essentially Western — not to mention imperialist — mind-set… Literature today is no longer concerned with morality the way it was in the nineteenth century. Unrelenting, bleak images of society are celebrated for their realism, as representations of humanity. And yet, we have very few images, representations, or new and challenging canon that captures the essential helplessness, the inevitable corruption, the deep-lying flaws of both society and humanity in the way “The Wire” does.
I would encourage all fans of “The Wire” to read this frequently hilarious and insightful post. It serves as a reminder to those of us who love the show of what makes it stand apart from all other TV dramas: its audacity to show us that the “grit” and “realness” we celebrate in pop culture, stems, in real life, from the moral failings of the society we’ve built around us.
NOTE: A warning to all fans still in the midst of the series: there are minor plot spoilers.