Forward to the past: the strange case of The Wire
The question of how digital technology has affected the aesthetic conventions of ﬁlm and television has received a lot of scholarly attention since the early 1990s. Initially the debate focused on the inﬂuence of digital special effects on storytelling in big, special-effects-heavy blockbuster movies. In the past couple of years interest has turned to the impact of the DVD format and the internet. For example, the ﬁnancial importance of DVDs has likely promoted stylistic and narrational strategies that reward repeat viewings. One upshot of this is narrative complexity, a handy if somewhat loose umbrella term that encompasses quite different kinds of stories. What they have in common is that they – in varying ways and to different extents – are more cognitively demanding than ﬁlms and television series from the classical era. Subcategories are not mutually exclusive and include circular narratives, network narratives, modular narratives, database narratives, forking-path plots, twist movies, and transmedia storytelling (see for example Bordwell 2006; Jenkins 2006; Mittell 2006; Ramirez Berg 2006). DVD box-sets and TiVo, meanwhile, have probably contributed to longer story arcs and tighter plotting across episodes in TV series, as these technologies allow viewers to see their favourite shows in bulk rather than in weekly instalments. The internet has reinforced some of these developments. Complex ﬁlms and television series, especially those constructed as hermeneutic riddles, lend themselves well to collective puzzle-solving online. Also, the internet has proved to be the perfect arena for cultivating the kind of dedicated fandom that has been a key factor in the proliferation of transmedia storytelling. Finally, non-linear editing systems and lightweight digital cameras have likely played a part in the move towards what David Bordwell (2002) calls an ‘intensiﬁed continuity’ style, characterized by rapid editing and lots of camera movement. It seems clear that we are witnessing some major new developments, and
while digital technology is not their sole cause, it has undoubtedly played an important part. Against this backdrop, it is somewhat surprising that the
television series perhaps most frequently described as the best, the most complex, or most innovative – The Wire – enjoys a curiously conﬂicted and contradictory relationship to these tendencies. This chapter examines The Wire in the context of more widely discussed trends in popular ﬁlm and television, and argues that the show stands as remarkably basic compared to the stylistic and narrational ﬂamboyance that typiﬁes so much of today’s high-end entertainment output. Indeed, its originality and critical success in certain respects paradoxically stems from a return to the long-standing traditions of documentary ﬁlm-making and the classical novel.