Way Down in the Hole

Every era has its great narrative art form, stories delivered via the au courant medium that simultaneously show us the small characters of individuals and the vast social panoramas that limn their decisions and lives. The Anglo-Saxons and ancient Greeks had epic poetry, its tropes, rhythms, and assonances perfect for delivery via roving troubador or bard. Urban Greeks and Elizabethans saw the peaks of their cultures’ theatrical drama, where everyone from the aristocracy to the masses gathered for social and moral insight peppered with bawdy jokes. Nineteenth-century England had its sweeping novels, ranging from Austen to ; the 1970s gave us Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Nashville, and their kin.

We are living in the age of the great television series. From Hill Street Blues to The Sopranos, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Rome, I know I’m not the only one who’s more eager to find out what’s happening with “my” characters and plotlines than to go see some cinematic blockbuster. (I might make an exception for Pixar movies, which deserve their own post: truly great kids’ movies are being made these days. But I digress.)

Of course, The Wiredoes this even need to be repeated?—is the greatest of them all. I’ve watched its five seasons twice; it was even better the second time, as this former lit major could see what David Simon was doing in much more awe-inspiring detail. Academics are (rightly) falling all over themselves to delve into its intellectual and visual riches, including the great urban sociologist William Julius Wilson. For those who don’t know the series, one academic look at its credit sequence (eek!) introduced it well, noting that on the surface, it’s about the war between Baltimore’s police and drug dealers. But beyond that, it’s about:

The similarities between organizations on both sides of the law, and how their struggle affects individual citizens and failing public institutions. Each main plot and subplot affirms that every part of society is somehow connected to every other part—that we're all part of the same (to use a phrase that often crops up in discussions of Deadwood) "human organism."

Unfortunately, that organism is made up of people who are mainly interested in protecting their turf.

(Lesser “interrogations” of the show can be highly mockable. But once again, I digress.)

Sociologists and media professors have been all over it. Former lit majors have known that The Wire is Dickens in a more contemporary form, what with its narrative sweep, its nuanced individuals who are also symbols, and the crushing social structures.

At long last, literature geeks can think about all this in our own special language, with a new faux-Victorian academic book that simultaneously transforms The Wire into a Dickens-like novel by a long-neglected writer they name Horatio Buckelsby Ogden; they analyze the series as as literature. I loved the serious playfulness of authors Joy DeLyria and Sean Michael Robinson in this article, “When It’s Not Your Turn,” which starts thus:

There are few works of greater scope or structural genius than the series of fiction pieces by Horatio Bucklesby Ogden, collectively known as The Wire; yet for the most part, this Victorian masterpiece has been forgotten and ignored by scholars and popular culture alike.  Like his contemporary Charles Dickens, Ogden has, due to the rough and at times lurid nature of his material, been dismissed as a hack, despite significant endorsements of literary critics of the nineteenth century.  Unlike the corpus of Dickens, The Wire failed to reach the critical mass of readers necessary to sustain interest over time, and thus runs the risk of falling into the obscurity of academia.  We come to you today to right that gross literary injustice….

The genius of The Wire lies in its sheer size and scope, its slow layering of complexity which could not have been achieved in any other way but the serial format.  Dickens is often praised for his portrayal not merely of a set of characters and their lives, but of the setting as a character: the city itself an antagonist.  Yet in The Wire, Bodymore is a far more intricate and compelling character than London in Dickens’ hands; The Wire portrays society to such a degree of realism and intricacy that A Tale of Two Cities—or any other story—can hardly compare.

The book, Down in the Hole: the unWire World of H.B. Ogden, is every bit as much fun. Reading it made me jones for the series all over again. I’m going to start making it through a third time.

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