On The Wire

Book Pages: 280 Illustrations: 60 color illustrations Published: August 2014

Author: Linda Williams

American Studies, Cultural Studies, Media Studies > TV

Many television critics, legions of fans, even the president of the United States, have cited The Wire as the best television series ever. In this sophisticated examination of the HBO serial drama that aired from 2002 until 2008, Linda Williams, a leading film scholar and authority on the interplay between film, melodrama, and issues of race, suggests what exactly it is that makes The Wire so good. She argues that while the series is a powerful exploration of urban dysfunction and institutional failure, its narrative power derives from its genre. The Wire is popular melodrama, not Greek tragedy, as critics and the series creator David Simon have claimed. Entertaining, addictive, funny, and despairing all at once, it is a serial melodrama grounded in observation of Baltimore's people and institutions: of cops and criminals, schools and blue-collar labor, local government and local journalism. The Wire transforms close observation into an unparalleled melodrama by juxtaposing the good and evil of individuals with the good and evil of institutions.


"On the Wire is a readable, rigorously argued account of HBO’s seminal series. . . . Williams is noted for being a top scholar in film and media studies, but On the Wire demonstrates that above all else she is a passionate fan of the series. In order to explain why she loves it so much, and why it has impacted American culture with such force, she’s written a must-read book for everyone who believes that The Wire is life-changing fiction of the highest order." — Jon Lisi, PopMatters

"Linda Williams’s book revolutionizes the ways we approach the series. Hers is a provocative, productive analysis that makes an essential contribution to the sociology of television: not only how to think of television as social force but its own ability to constitute sociological investigation." — Dana Polan, Film Quarterly

“By tying The Wire’s forcefulness to its televisual and melodramatic nature, On The Wire reveals that however exceptional, this show can also be a model. As such, this book modestly saves the series from monumentality.” — Nathan Holmes, Critical Inquiry

"Williams’ s study... provides a view of The Wire that is often illuminating and surprising…" — Stanley Corkin, Journal of American Studies

“As an avid fan of the series The Wire, Linda Williams’s book was a thoroughly interesting read. … In each section, the author skillfully weaves the storyline from episodes into her argument in a believable and defensible fashion. … Williams’s volume offers a unique perspective on a beloved series.” — Amy Muckleroy Carwile, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly

On The Wire is an ambitious study that makes an original, compelling argument about a series on which much has already been written. The questions Williams sets out in the early part of her monograph both pay tribute to The Wire and make clear that she is willing to probe the assumptions often made about it. ...Pushing back against the critical consensus, On The Wire is not just an original study of its chosen series but also a model for how we should think about contemporary television more generally.” — George Potts, Critical Quarterly

“Williams’s On The Wire is a fascinating text. Whether she is lauding the series for its capacity to ruffle certain cinematic conventions and assumptions about race and class or criticizing the show for its diminished gender politics (e.g., blaming the single black mother), her analysis is coherent, trenchant, and provocative. … For those interested in the series and those interested more generally in film and media studies, American culture, and the intersection of race and class, On The Wire will be an enjoyable and provocative read.” — Joseph Winters, African American Review

“Like many fans of The Wire I have a fantasy of re-watching the entire series from beginning until the end. It is something that I will do someday, once I can clear my schedule enough for multiple nights on end of three hours plus of watching. Until then reading something like Linda Williams’ On The Wire is perhaps the next best thing. It makes it possible to revisit the series without revisiting the trials and tribulations of binge watching.” — Jason Read, Unemployed Negativity blog

"This important and engaging read will be of value to current scholars of race, policing, urban districts, and mass incarceration across disciplines. As we engage a national moment regarding the categories listed above, this work and the work of David Simon should be compulsory reading and viewing for anyone looking to understand our immediate present." — Michael Durfee, Journal of American Culture

"I must admit being skeptical of Linda Williams's thesis that The Wire is best understood as melodrama. But after reading her convincing and compelling analysis, I not only came away with new insights into a series that I knew very well, but have fully revised my notions of how serial melodrama applies to contemporary television. This vital book is essential reading for scholars and viewers of both The Wire and television drama more broadly."
— Jason Mittell, author of Television and American Culture

"Linda Williams's kaleidoscopic study compellingly considers The Wire as art, as rhetoric, and as political intervention. Her absorbing argument for the series as 'institutional melodrama' upends conventional discussions not only about this narrative but about the broader practice of contemporary television drama. We understand The Wire not as tragedy, not as a novel, not as a piece of journalism; rather, we see and feel the show at the intersection of home and the world, as the orange couch in the courtyard of the low rises." — Sean O'Sullivan, author of Mike Leigh


Availability: In stock
Price: $26.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Linda Williams is Professor of Film Studies and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. Her books include Screening Sex and Porn Studies, both also published by Duke University Press; Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson; Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film; and Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible." In 2013, Williams received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

Part I. World Enough and Time: The Genesis and Genius of The Wire

1. Ethnographic Imagination: From Journalism to Television Serial 11

2. Serial Television's World and Time: The Importance of the "Part" 37

Part II. Justice in The Wire: Tragedy, Realism, and Melodrama

3. "Classical" Tragedy, or . . . 79

4. Realistic, Modern Serial Melodrama 107

Part III. Surveillance, Schoolin', and Race

5. Hard Eyes / Soft Eyes: Surveillance and Schoolin' 139

6. Feeling Race: The Wire and the American Melodrama of Black and White 173

Conclusion: Home Sweet Baltimore 211

Notes 223

Bibliography 247

Index 255
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5717-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5706-3
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