'The Wire' Was Really a Victorian Novel


Most people know McNulty and Bunk as characters in David Simon's acclaimed HBO series—but they were actually players in a 19th-century book by H.B. Ogden. Seriously.

powerHouse Books

Most people know The Wire as the HBO police drama set in Baltimore—an intricate five-season exploration of the brokenness of the inner-city's war on drugs, education system, politics, and policing, and one of the most lauded television shows of all time. Fewer people know that it was originally a Victorian serial by the almost forgotten writer H.B. Ogden. Such, at least, was the claim of Sean Michael Robinson and Joy DeLyria, who created a virtuoso analysis of Ogden's work and an airtight argument as to why The Wire, with its serial format, moral message, and sympathy for the downtrodden, was quintessentially Victorian, and could never be reproduced in our own time. They accompanied their text with drawings (by Robinson) from the original Wire, including a striking depiction of Omar Little walking down a London street as urchins scatter around him.

Robinson and DeLyria's essay appeared on my blog, the Hooded Utilitarian, and quickly went viral. A year later, powerHouse books is publishing an entire novel/critique/parody called Down in the Hole: The unWired World of H.B. Ogden, out this week. The book resets numerous scenes from The Wire in a 19th-century London setting—whether it's D'Angelo, Bodie, and Wallace discussing processed chicken parts, or McNulty and Bunk investigating a crime scene while spewing colorful Victorian slang. DeLyria and Robinson also analyze the serial's structure, themes, and canonicity—and provide a copious helping of new illustrations I spoke to the two last month about H.B. Ogden and The Wire.

On the copyright page, the book is referred to as a "parody" of The Wire. I presume that that's a legal definition ... but I'm curious to what extent you see this as a parody?

Robinson: The legal aspect of the question is hard to disentangle from the rest. Let's just say that of the accepted applications of fair use, including commentary, educational purposes, and parody, parody has been the one most consistently upheld by courts. And I have no doubt that that the book could be seen as a parody of The Wire—taking the dialogue out of the context of the show and placing it into a cultural context that we see as much more stuffy and restrained as our own creates a very jarring effect that certainly could be seen as some kind of commentary of both.

But I think our intention, anyway, is something more strange and loving than straight parody, although that's present as well. We both have a deep affection for the show, a deep affection for self-referential meta-fiction, for the literature of the Victorian period and serial fiction in general, and legal definitions aside, you could see the book as a big sloppy love letter to all of those things.

So in what ways, or how, is The Wire comparable to Victorian serialized fiction?

DeLyria: Serialized novels came out a chapter at a time. Some chapters were a little more episodic than others; sometimes they featured side-plots or characters. For the most part, however, one would not be content simply reading a single chapter (as one would watching a single episode of M*A*S*H). In this sense, a show like The Wire compares to serial novels due to the way in which it's delivered to the consumer.

The novels themselves sometimes highlighted a single protagonist with a single through-line (think David Copperfield), but even these featured large casts, multiple plotlines, and sprawling narrative focused on many different aspects of life. Serialized narrative in that era (in England as well as elsewhere) also tended to focus on social problems, possibly because the format lent itself to such exploration (due to length), but also probably due to a general zeitgeist. The Wire follows many characters through many plots, and focuses on many of the same themes.

The main way in which The Wire differs from these novels in structure is the "seasons" format. Victorian novels were often split into volumes, but these delineations didn't mark shifts in characters, plot, or theme. While all five seasons of The Wire are connected, each season introduces new characters, follows a new major plot, and introduces another thematic layer. Although a single season is considerably enriched by watching the other seasons, it can be understood by itself. There isn't really a parallel to that kind of structure in Victorian literature.

How serious are you when you suggest that The Wire is comparable as an aesthetic achievement to something like Bleak House? Does The Wire's visual style compare to Dickens' prose, for example?

Robinson: A lot of the strongest statements in the book are intended as provocations as much as actual arguments. That being said, there's no doubt that The Wire is an incredibly complex piece of fiction, that uses narrative in a lot of really interesting ways, and that manages to be persuasive without being didactic. Those are incredibly rare things in any art form, and deserve to be celebrated as high achievements.

Of course, if we're treating prose style and narrative deftness in a novel as analogues to visual style or other formal elements of television storytelling, I don't think The Wire really stands up aesthetically to most of Dickens' work.

So, there are lots of places, particularly visually but also occasionally narratively, that The Wire doesn't hold up as well as one might hope for an aspirant to the category of timeless art, but many of those things are a function of the economic necessities of television—quick turnaround, the massive amount of individual hands needed to create filmed media, all of the tens of thousands of decisions that must be made every day a show is in production. So if the show isn't as visually consistent or flamboyant as a David Lynch film, or occasionally took narrative detours that don't have payoffs, I think those are forgivable sins. Those are not dissimilar in fact to the production problems facing Dickens and other writers of serials—it's an accident of typesetting, for instance, that we have the version of, say, Oliver Twist that we do. He would typically overwrite each installment—that is, write more than he knew would be included in the actual serialization, and mark in the manuscript which portions could be most easily eliminated or trimmed so as to make the page count for each installment.

DeLyria: As Sean says, visually, it lacks panache, although there's a perfectly valid argument to be made for a style that doesn't call attention to itself. The idea behind Hemingway's writing is that the narrator falls away; the action becomes the center of the reader's focus, rather than the telling of it. The Wire (unlike a Victorian novel) was going for that journalistic style, and for the most part succeeds.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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