Title

All the pieces matter: A critical analysis of HBO's "The Wire"

Date of Award

2008

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Social Sciences

Advisor(s)

Robert J. Thompson

Keywords

HBO, Wire, Television, Niche market programming, Television critics, Niche markets

Subject Categories

Communication | Mass Communication | Social and Behavioral Sciences

Abstract

Unlike much scholarship on television that studies the medium's effects on viewers or looks at one piece of the production-distribution-consumption model, this qualitative study on The Wire tackles the three folds of the cultural studies project - the TV series as text, the political economy of its distribution (premium cable channel HBO), and the reception of the text (by TV critics). The Wire was a critically adored, award-ignored series that aired on HBO from 2002 to 2008. In order to tell a story of these three interconnected folds, I conducted interviews, participant observation, and textual analysis. I also collected supplemental documents that provided valuable information and perspectives from The Wire and HBO insiders who were inaccessible.

The Wire had low viewership numbers but managed to achieve the five-season plan its creator David Simon outlined midway through the show's tenure. Following the HBO slogan, "It's Not TV. It's HBO," The Wire offered numerous "not TV" characteristics that contributed to its low ratings. Simon's socially relevant series, which he calls a "visual novel," also boasted an enormous ensemble cast mostly of black actors and examined bleak themes such as the failure of the War on Drugs and the "death of work" in America. The role played by the once unassailable but now vulnerable HBO during the years of The Wire further complicates this story.

Nevertheless, without the support of HBO and TV critics' effusive praise of the series, The Wire might have been prematurely canceled. The influence of TV critics, who called The Wire "Dickensian," "genius TV," and "surely the best TV show ever broadcast in America," was unmistakable when HBO renewed The Wire for its fourth and fifth seasons, which allowed Simon to complete his vision. Recently, though, the future for many TV critics has grown bleak, in light of the struggles that print newspapers have endured. Furthermore, The Wire 's inability to win any Emmy Awards might hurt its actors and actresses, who could have used the recognition to land more prominent roles, and television writers, who might wish to tell socially relevant stories using similarly unconventional methods. This study embraces and recommends the three-fold cultural studies project in understanding individual television series, for the researcher can learn as much about the medium as about the series.

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