In On The Wire, film scholar Linda Williams pushes back against that conventional wisdom. The Wire’s greatness, she argues, isn’t because of its literary or classical dramatic qualities. Rather, The Wire is great because of the way it uses and expands upon the resources of serial television melodrama. As Williams says, “in seeking to articulate what is so exceptional about The Wire, I shall argue that it is first necessary to appreciate what is conventional about it: seriality, televisuality, and melodrama.”
That last one, melodrama, is perhaps the most important for Williams. Melodrama, she says, is often seen as a particularly artificial mode, complete with mustache-twirling villains, weeping heroines, and exclamation-strewn intertitles. In contrast, The Wire is seen as valuable because it is true to life and nuanced. It is not like other television, in part, because it is not artificial. It is authentic.
Williams argues that this fundamentally misunderstands melodrama — a genre that she sees as central to the democratic experience and project. Her book is not just about rethinking The Wire, but also about using The Wire to rethink melodrama, and therefore as a way to rethink, or re-understand, the democratic values to which The Wire is committed. Her reading of The Wire, therefore, starts with the insight that melodrama is not artificial, but is actually a quintessentially realist genre. As a definition she states, “melodrama always offers the contrast between how things are and how they could be, or should be.” She adds, “This is its fundamental utopianism” — but it is also its fundamental realism. Melodrama, in Dickens or Harriet Beecher Stowe, relies upon a vision of the world as it is in order to imagine, or create, a vision of the world as it ought to be.
Williams contrasts melodrama in particular to classical tragedy, where the heroes “face up to the way things are — to being the ‘playthings of the gods.’” For Williams, tragedy is iconically aristocratic and conservative; it is based on the acceptance of hierarchy and power as immutable constants. Melodrama, on the other hand, is, again, a liberal, democratic mode, in which suffering is presented as unnecessary if only the authorities, and indeed the viewers, would commit to change. Melodrama is therefore the essential genre of democratic discourse. When activists on the left point to Trayvon Martin’s death and call for changes in Stand Your Ground laws, or when activists on the right wave placards touting fetal heartbeats, both are crafting melodramas by pointing to (a version of) reality and holding out the possibility of change. “Melodrama,” Williams says, “belongs to liberalism’s promise of progress, individual self-determination, and the refusal of predetermined fate.”