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Fictional Factuality and The Wire

EVD's picture

      On any given Sunday, crime drama series The Wire might draw an audience in the multi-millions. For Baltimoreans, an episode of the show might also parallel a local news broadcast. Critics applaud The Wire for its accuracy because producers base story lines on the experiences of Baltimore police officers and cast prominent politicians and lesser known Baltimore natives alike. The show is so accurate because episodes portray Baltimore as it exists, essentially, as the episodes are airing. Scenes are filmed on Baltimore’s streets in the exact locations where The Wire’s fictional stories may recently have played out; though the events in one particular episode may never have actually occurred, any Baltimorean knows that they undoubtedly could have occurred. Both  for those who know crime-ridden cities intimately and those who can only know them through television shows, crime drama series like The Wire, Law and Order, CSI and countless others are increasingly difficult to distinguish from real life. But why are Americans so captivated by fictional crime on television?


    Jeremy Sherman of Psychology Today gives an interesting perspective on America’s fascination with crime drama. Sherman explains: “We identify with lawbreakers because we’re law-breakers too…We cheer watching the gangsters get away with it.  We’re appalled by their duplicity. We cheer when they get caught (i).” But why can we relate to fictional villains and not the real-life criminals exposed in news broadcasts? For some viewers, the intimate portrayal of a criminal’s everyday life supplied by television shows but not news broadcasts allows them to connect the show’s fictions with their own truths. The Washington Post interviewed fans of The Wire and found that those who have lived in crime-ridden areas can often relate the experiences of characters on the show to those of people they have known. Because the cast of The Wire is largely African American, the show has drawn mass viewership from African American college students and young professionals, many of whom have known others subjected to the same experiences as characters on The Wire (ii). The ability to consciously relate to characters on crime dramas may account for some viewership, but those viewers who are not from urban areas may find relating to a character’s experiences impossible.  

     Perhaps television crime shows are satisfying for suburbia-dwelling viewers because many times the criminal is caught. In a CBS broadcast, reporter Tracy Smith states: “There's a belief that the horror of 9/11 created a huge sense of vulnerability in our national consciousness, and that watching the good guys win makes us feel better." (iii) Though this claim seems reasonable when referring to some of the more mild crime dramas, it’s hard to believe that anyone would feel safer after watching an episode of Law and Order, even if the criminal was caught in the end.  No matter how much jail time given to a captured murderer in the last five minutes of an episode, the classic first five minutes still shows a dead body and a grieving family. Even though many criminals are caught in The Wire, the show also focuses on the corruption and cruelty of many police officers-- a truth that is far from comforting.

     The thrilling ingredient in each episode which captivates so many viewers is not a feel-good ending but the frightening crime itself along with the criminal’s dramatic evasion of police. The massive appeal of crime drama involves our fascination with a version of reality which we cannot experience first-hand. Like observing sharks from behind a glass wall, Americans feel an urge to experience a life entangled with murder and drugs from the safety of the home. Fortunately, the modern crime-based television shows like The Wire are so closely based on actual events and people that in some ways viewers really can experience violent crime in the way that real-life onlookers do. Essentially, The Wire has all the makings of a documentary film without feigning actuality-- The series was created, written and produced by two Baltimoreans- a former police reporter and a former homicide detective. Many of the actors on the show are not professional actors at all but rather Baltimoreans who live near the same streets as their characters do. The fictional criminal actions are even based on actual criminal strategy- one drug ring in New York City even copied tactics of criminals in the show in order to evade police. (iv)

    Even though shows like The Wire can produce real fears, prejudices and even passion in its fans, most viewers can still put away these feelings post-episode in realizing that they are reactions to a fictional story. When the same viewers watch a news broadcast or documentary of the same subject, however, they may be affected in a more lasting way, perhaps even driven to take action. But in realizing the “fictional factuality” of The Wire, some have used the show to support a call to action for real-life issues. One Harvard University professor uses episodes of The Wire to convey “the roots of the social conditions in America's inner cities” to students in his class on urban inequality. (v) A professor might choose to use a non-fiction equivalent of a crime drama, for example a documentary, but no equivalent exists which can depict the nature of crime in the comprehensive way that The Wire does. In fact, a truly accurate depiction of certain crimes could probably never exist because no law abiding citizen would dare enter this dangerous world with a camera in hand or convince a dangerous criminal to comply. The Wire may be the closest we will ever get to an authentic representation of drug crime in Baltimore.

    So if a fictional television show is more authentic than any news report or documentary could be, then why do we treat it as such? By denying the inherent truth in shows like The Wire, we deny that many Americans do live similarly to characters on the show and that many have no choice but to live in areas overcome by violent crime. By acknowledging that The Wire’s fictions are not really fictions at all, we avoid settling for skewed news reports and documentaries that cannot possibly give a completely accurate account. Perhaps if shows displaying “fictional factuality” like The Wire were deemed part of a new genre apart from the standard fiction-non-fiction dichotomy, then more Americans could acknowledge the truth about what they cannot experience first-hand, satisfying both the American love of drama and the need for social awareness.


i Sherman, Jeremy. "Gangstas R Us: Why We Love Crime Drama." Psychology Today. 31 Mar. 2009. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. <>.

ii Leonnig, Carol D. "'The Wire': Young Adults See Bits of Their Past." Washington Post. 11 Dec. 2006. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. <>.

iii Why TV Crime Shows Are to Die For. CBS News. 16 May 2010. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. <>.

iv Rashbaum, William. “Police Say a Queens Drug Ring Watched Too Much Television.” New York Times. 15 Jan. 2005. Wed. 29 Oct. 2010. <>

v Chaddha, Anmol, and Julius Wilson. "Why We're Teaching 'The Wire' at Harvard." Washington Post. 12 Sept. 2010. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. <>.


Anne Dalke's picture

From the safety of the home

EVD --
You play with a number of possible (and contradictory) explanations for the popularity of crime shows--from a "fascination with a version of reality which we cannot experience first-hand" to the reverse: that "we identify with lawbreakers because we’re law-breakers too…"  You settle then on an argument somewhere in between, and also quite similar to the one kgould develops in Thrill of Disaster, Thrill of Fight or Flight: that "Americans feel an urge to experience a life entangled with murder and drugs" (or in her case, horror films) "from the safety of the home."

kgould says that our pleasure in horror films is a nicely modulated conversation between the unconscious, which "hasn't really adapted to the new technology," and consciousness, which "knows that there is no real threat," and so enables us to enjoy "the thrill of disaster." You go in a very different direction in using the "“fictional factuality” of The Wire both to "support a call to action for real-life issues," and to suggest that we might re-think our conventional generic binary. I appreciate both those gestures, though I'm not sure I'd really call this a "new genre," since "fictionality" has really been part of 'factual' representations since the beginning (see the notes from my mini-lecture on documentary films: tensions between documentary’s artistic ambitions and its imperative to "show the world" have been present since its origin, as filmmakers tried to adapt editing styles and dramatic structure to real life).

Could you "loop" what you do here back to the "crime film" we discussed together in class, Morris's Thin Blue Line? I'd be interested in hearing you think out loud a little more about the relevance of your claims here to what we've been looking @ together. Would you go so far as to "dissolve" the class, as maintaining a "fiction" of the "non-fictional" which does not hold water?