Is “The Wire” a Visual Novel?

I got a comment on my post about the future of publishing from my classmate Brian that when someone asked Jeff Baker, the book editor of The Oregonian what was the best book he’d read in the last ten years, he said HBO’s “The Wire.”

So I did a little bit of research on the show. Created by David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun journalist on the police beat and author of Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood with Ed Burns, a Baltimore policeman-turned-teacher.

The University of Georgia Peabody Board awarded “The Wire,” calling it “one of the most intense and complex narratives television viewers have seen.” Then I was listening to NPR and heard the tail end of an interview with George Pelecanos, an author of crime fiction, who was nominated for the Writers Guild of America Award award for Best Dramatic Series for his work on “The Wire.” Apparently, he is just one of many writers, directors and producers responsible for the flavor of the show. He’d just released The Turnaround, but Terry Gross was hammering him about writing for television and how President Bill Clinton had been seen exiting Air Force One with a copy of one of his books under his arm, and now Barack Obama is a big “Wire” fan and kind-of mad at him for killing off his favorite character.

Pelecanos had some interesting things to say about the shortcuts allowed in television writing. If a character gets up out of his chair, walks to the door and out to the street, you don’t have to write that part. You just write [EXTERIOR, DAY]. It was a sort-of metaconversation on writing. I’m a sucker for that stuff.

Many important events occur off-camera and there is no artificial exposition in the form of voice-over or flashbacks. Thus, the viewer needs to follow every conversation closely in order to understand who’s who and what’s going on. Each season consists of 10-13 full-hour episodes, which form a single narrative. Simon chose this structure with an eye towards long story arcs that draw a viewer in and then result in a more satisfying payoff. Simon uses the metaphor of a visual novel in several interviews, describing each episode as a chapter, and has also commented that this allows a fuller exploration of the show’s themes in time not spent on plot development.

So just how thought-provoking, political and gripping could this television serial be? It’s kind-of hard to stop watching and write. In fact, there’s scarcely a moment over the last two weeks that I haven’t at least been listening to the stories unfold while I’m writing papers and blogs, researching and designing for classes. It’s like a page-turner novel you can’t put down, but which can be absorbed somewhat passively. I say somewhat because the rewards are absent if some degree of concentration isn’t exercised to follow and anticipate the story.


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