“Dickensian” has become a buzzword in recent TV criticism not only because the term connotes a large character ensemble, but also because it connotes a diffuse ensemble. In TV series such as The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, many characters live and work so far apart from each other—whether in different neighborhoods of a city or different regions of the globe—that they fail to recognize how their actions affect each other. Through its wide spatial scope, this type of macroscopic “stranger narrative” explores a type of ethical confusion that is a byproduct of globalization. Namely, these narratives reveal to readers or viewers how they might be connected to and responsible for people they don’t even know.
In the spring of 2012, to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth, The Guardian published an infographic entitled “Which novel is the most Dickensian?” Several of his novels were scored based on how many Dickensian archetypes appeared in their pages, from a list that included the “bachelor philanthropist,” the “beatific virgin,” the “devious lawyer,” and the “orphan” (Frost, Kynvin, and Lenman). Far from an attempt at Franco Moretti-style quantitative literary analysis, the Guardian chart didn’t take itself seriously; as its creators acknowledged, someone else would have come up with a different list of archetypes and a different set of results. But if this clever meme didn’t reveal much about Dickens’s oeuvre, it did tell us something about what the term “Dickensian” has come to signify in contemporary culture. Much of the bicentennial coverage echoed the Guardian’s premise that Dickens was “all about character,” and specifically, character quantity: that we remember him, partly, for the sheer number of lawyers, orphans, schoolmasters, and spinsters that he packed into each of his novels. In a bicentennial segment on NPR, Dickens biographer Claire Tomalin summed up her subject as “the great creator of characters, multiple characters” (Wertheimer).
Part of the reason that “Dickensian” has become such a buzzword in TV criticism, in particular, is that the medium is home to so many big character ensembles. While it was once common to describe Dickens as a proto-cinematic writer—his novels prefigured the techniques of the crosscut and the dissolve, as Sergei Eisenstein pointed out in 1942—critics are now realizing that Dickens’s other narrative trademark, the large ensemble, bears more powerfully on television. To sustain an ensemble as large as the one in Bleak House, a novel that includes upwards of 50 characters, is quite a feat for a typical feature-length film; a new character would need to be introduced roughly every two minutes. A multi-season TV serial, by contrast, could manage an ensemble of that size without breaking a sweat. To get a sense of the proportions: The Wire, over the course of its 60-hour runtime, introduces at least 84 characters (counting only the ones individually profiled on its HBO website). Granted, that show might be an extreme example, but TV history is rife with shows—and not just perennial franchises such as General Hospital or Law and Order, but also shorter-lived series such as Freaks and Geeks or Arrested Development—that rack up enough characters to rival any Dickens novel. In cinema, the massive ensemble is the exception, the experimental terrain of directors like Robert Altman and Steven Soderbergh; in serial TV, it’s the rule.
As the popularizer of the serial novel (Victorianists like to remind their students), Dickens is a forefather of long-running serial television. TV critics have applied the label “Dickensian” with particular persistency, however, to a recent set of shows: to the complex, aesthetically ambitious dramas that the medium has begun to foster in the past decade and a half, three of the most celebrated being The Sopranos (1999-2007), The Wire (2002-2008), and Breaking Bad (2008-present). On one level, this is simply a strategy for acquiring prestige: if you want to elevate the status of a historically lowbrow cultural form, compare it to an esteemed one. But there’s a reason that Dickens’s particular name comes up so often in discussions of these shows, I think, and it’s not just—or not exactly—the sizes of their casts. In discussing the nineteenth-century novel as a literary form with unprecedented quantities of characters, Alex Woloch used the language of compression: characters “jostle for limited space” (13) in the realist novel’s “crowded social landscape” (314), just as individuals in an urbanizing and stratifying society competed for space and capital. But what is Dickensian about The Wire, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad, I would suggest, is not so much their population density as the diffuseness of their ensembles. They share with many of Dickens’s novels a quality that might be called scope.
Scope: “The sphere or area over which any activity operates or is effective”; the “range […] of subjects embraced” (OED Online). In the realm of literary studies, “scope” is often casually invoked to describe or compare works of fiction: Mansfield Park has a wider scope than Emma; Bleak House has a wider scope than “A Visit To Newgate.” But it’s not self-evident what such claims mean. Speculating on why The Wire had garnered so many comparisons to Dickens, the show’s creator, David Simon, gestured to the concept of scope. The Wire was similar to the nineteenth-century novel, he remarked in an interview with Vice magazine, in that it offered “this sort of scope of society through the classes…” For Simon, then, “scope” seems to call to mind socio-economic range: ensembles that feature the rich and powerful (Sir Dedlock and Clay Davis), the poor and abject (Jo and Bubbles), and everyone in between. If scope is defined with respect to class, one might say, for instance, that Sister Carrie, whose characters move from rags to riches, has a wider scope than War and Peace, which focuses on the landed aristocracy. But what if scope is defined with respect to geography? The contest would be close: Leo Tolstoy’s novel mostly alternates between Moscow and St. Petersburg, with battle scenes in the Russian countryside and Eastern Europe; Theodore Dreiser’s progresses from Chicago to New York, with a brief stopover in Montreal. If scope is defined in terms of time frame, the contest is similarly close, with both novels spanning seven or eight years (not counting the events alluded to in the epilogue of War and Peace).
As a narrative concept, scope might be most usefully defined, broadly, as the dimensions—temporal, spatial, and social—of a fictional world. The metaphor of fictional “worlds” offers a helpful way of discussing the tacit ideologies of works of fiction: “Rudeness is a moral transgression in the world of an Austen novel”; “everyone is hyper-articulate in the world of a Whit Stillman film.” The metaphor captures how a work of fiction, rather than transparently reflecting our world, always creates its own: a rendering shaped by the artist’s values as well as by decisions about what to put in and what to leave out. Attending more closely to the scope of fictional worlds, though, could help us develop a richer taxonomy of modes and genres, from the hypothetical worlds of science fiction or counterfactuals to the defamiliarized worlds of modernism or magical realism. And the concept of scope is particularly relevant, I would suggest, for those of us interested in realism. To that ever-shifting catalog of realist tropes and conventions—from the mundane detail to the representative type to the shaky camera—we might consider adding scope itself. There is much to be said about how wide timeframes, roving geographies, and varied social topographies—characteristic of the realist novel as well as much contemporary TV—work as reality effects. The vast dimensions of these fictional worlds help them masquerade as real worlds, allowing them powerfully to condition the sociological imaginations of readers and viewers.
What would it mean to attend more closely to scope? Beyond observing that the worlds of Austen and Stillman feel similarly small and cloistered, we might inquire: How far apart do characters live?; how big is their neighborhood or city—or do they live in multiple cities, multiple countries?; do characters themselves travel among these locales, or only the narrator; in which industries do they work, and what is their income range?; or, over how many days or months or years does the action unfold, and how often does the narration (through memories, allusions, prolepses) venture into other timeframes? While narratology has given us a lexicon for several of these individual qualities, we lack a language for describing them holistically as they manifest across works, genres, and eras.
Scope can be better understood in contrast to another term that has lately been gaining traction in literary studies: scale. The recent scholarship on scale falls roughly into two groups. The first group, focused on methodology, urges literary critics to rethink the temporal and spatial categories (the nation, the period) through which we study works of literature. Examples would include Wai Chee Dimock’s notion of “deep time” and the intertextual resonances that connect works to other centuries and continents; Franco Moretti’s advocacy of “distant reading” to trace the movement of genres and techniques across times and places (56-58); Nirvana Tanoukhi’s call for a “literary phenomenology of the production of scale” that would attend to how literature shapes the very concept of scale (614); and Mark McGurl’s effort to “radicalize” Dimock’s notion of deep time by moving away from anthropocentric time, situating literature with respect to geological or even cosmological timescales (“Posthuman” 537-538). The question for these critics is, now that we’ve accepted that the literature of any given nation, region, or historical moment is inevitably shaped by far-reaching networks and trans-historical institutions, how do we develop an appropriate frame for literary analysis?
Another group of critics has focused more on the properties of literary or aesthetic objects than on the scale of literary analysis. Some of these critics, with backgrounds in the history of the book or material culture, have considered the physical size and dimensions of works with respect to their meaning and reception; some have explored scale, size, and space as themes of works of literature and art. This group would include Susan Stewart on miniature books and dollhouses; Leah Price on anthologies and abridgement; Sianne Ngai on cuteness and other “minor” aesthetic categories; and Bruce Robbins on the literary expression of global consciousness. Several scholars, bridging both groups, have considered scale with respect to method and form; McGurl, for instance, has discussed both “big historicism” as a critical practice and “maximalism” as a literary mode.
This emerging discourse of scale would be enriched, I think, by a parallel language of scope. Scope—the dimensions of a fictional world—describes something distinct from either the frame of literary analysis or the material properties of the aesthetic object. For instance, McGurl’s diagram of minimalism, maximalism, and miniaturism, which he identifies as three key “impulses” in postwar American fiction, might be reconceived in terms of the scope:scale relationship (Program Era 377). Minimalism would entail a small scope and small scale (e.g. Raymond Carver’s short stories); maximalism, a large scope and large scale (e.g. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow); miniaturism, a large scope and small scale (e.g. Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49).
In what follows, I’ll focus on just one aspect of scope: the distances among characters in a fictional world. The Dickensian aspect of The Wire, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad isn’t simply that each show has a lot of characters. It’s that those characters inhabit a world so spatially vast that many of them circulate beyond each other’s frames of perception. This type of story, which I call the stranger narrative, is now so widespread, in TV as well as literary fiction (Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad), that it seems almost ageless. But it has roots in the nineteenth-century novel, and specifically in the late-career novels of Charles Dickens. Bleak House (1852-53) is often described as formally experimental for the way it alternated between first- and third-person narrators, but it was equally radical in another respect; it featured several major characters whose lives appeared, at first, to be unconnected. Dickens didn’t become conscious of having invented this device until his second stranger narrative, Little Dorrit (1855-57); that novel, he wrote in his working notes, would have a “new means of interest” in which characters would “meet and part as travelers do, and the future connexion between them in the story, not to be now shewn to the reader…” (864). And Dickens certainly didn’t commit to the stranger narrative from thereon out (although he did return to the device in his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend). But his revolutionary notion that a novel could follow the interacting lives of unwittingly-connected strangers—rather than centering on a single protagonist (Robinson Crusoe), a family (Sense and Sensibility), or a group of friends (Vanity Fair)—would have a powerful impact on the novel, as well as on a storytelling medium that had yet to be invented.
Like Dickens’s stranger narratives, The Wire, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad follow character ensembles so diffuse that their members can’t perceive what viewers can: the fact that their lives are interconnected. Several critics have observed that these three shows “grapple with morality” (Klosterman) by portraying antiheroes negotiating gray areas: McNulty’s scheme to fabricate a serial killer in order to acquire more police funding; Tony’s vexed decision to assassinate a friend-turned-informant; Walter’s realization that he must kill or be killed by an angry hostage. But the powerful way these shows engage the moral imagination, I think, depends on their form as much as their themes. It’s interesting to watch characters consciously struggle with moral dilemmas; it’s revelatory to see how little thought they give, most of the time, to actions that will have deep consequences for other people in their network. By revealing how ignorant characters are of their interconnectedness, the stranger narrative makes us suspect that we, too, must routinely fail to perceive our impact on distant others. This device is certainly not exclusive to Victorian novels and contemporary TV; it was important to naturalism (Thomas Hardy, Emile Zola, Frank Norris), as well as to certain strands of modernism (John Dos Passos) and postmodernism (Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo). But it was Dickens and his Victorian peers, I would argue, who first employed the ensemble of distant characters to address the moral chaos of an increasingly networked world.
Compared to The Wire, with its vast array of cops, drug dealers, lawyers, politicians, dockworkers, schoolteachers, and so on, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad might seem relatively narrow in social scope. Each could be said to focus primarily on a single family (the Sopranos, the Whites) and a single professional world (the mafia, the methamphetamine trade). And yet this distinction starts to break down upon closer scrutiny: The Sopranos divides its attention among Tony’s immediate family and the members of the crime “family” with whom he works; Breaking Bad often leaves Walter’s perspective to follow his business partner, Jesse, who shares a fraught filial bond with Walter but also has his own network of family and friends. Tony’s business dealings in The Sopranos link him and his associates to industries ranging from sanitation and construction to hospitality and entertainment (restaurants, strip clubs, Hollywood) to, of course, psychoanalysis; Breaking Bad invites viewers into the closed backrooms of not only meth producers and dealers, but also of DEA agents, criminal defense attorneys, rehabilitation counselors, small-business owners, and multinational executives. The Sopranos and Breaking Bad examine the individuals or families at their center, then, within a perpetually expanding social and spatial frame. And both of these shows, along with The Wire, reveal how actions reverberate across those various milieus in ways that characters often don’t realize.
“Kennedy and Heidi,” the fourth-to-last episode of The Sopranos (and arguably the climactic one of the series), appears to center on the relationship between Tony and Christopher. After Christopher almost kills them both in a car accident, Tony, realizing what a liability Christopher has become, suffocates his drug-addicted nephew. But the title of the episode refers, oddly, to a pair of teenage girls whose car Christopher swerved away from to avoid before skidding off the road. The girls appear in the episode for less than a minute; we watch as they debate whether to turn back and check on the accident victims (they ultimately decide against it, given that Heidi is breaking the law by driving on her learner’s permit after dark). The title isn’t simply a red herring, though; it’s a reminder of how our actions ripple outward to affect people we don’t even know. Kennedy and Heidi: two more characters about whom, as Honoré de Balzac would have said, “a book might have been made”; two characters who will remain ignorant of how their near-accident, and their decision not to go back, shaped the lives of that parallel pair, Tony and Christopher.
By a mirrored logic, Tony’s behavior affects far more people than his immediate mafia-related victims, the episode suggests. Accompanying the central plotline, Christopher’s death, are two subplots: AJ’s deepening depression, and Tony’s attempt to find a cheap way of dumping asbestos from a construction project. Up to this point, The Sopranos had hinted that Tony was largely to blame for AJ’s troubled behavior: that AJ inherited his father’s depressive tendencies, and that, genetics aside, being raised by a sociopath in a culture of barely concealed violence would do a number on anyone’s psyche. In the episode after “Kennedy and Heidi,” though, the show links another set of factors to AJ’s depression. His geopolitical consciousness recently awakened, AJ grows worried about the terrorist threat and begins obsessively watching Al Jazeera (AJ, Al Jazeera, another one of those teasing empty resonances characteristic of creator David Chase’s poetics). And in the series finale, after accidentally destroying his SUV, AJ reminds his parents that Americans need to “break our dependence on foreign oil.” Manipulative as he is, AJ seems genuinely worried about these looming global threats; his depression, in this respect, stems from forces larger than Tony. But what The Sopranos brilliantly insinuates, in its final episodes, is that Tony is implicated in these “larger” forces that haunt AJ. Earlier in Season Six, Tony’s protégé, Christopher, transacted business with two possible terrorists, providing them with stolen credit card numbers and weapons connections. And at the end of “Kennedy and Heidi,” after Tony has failed to negotiate a solution for the asbestos waste, we watch as a member of his crew illegally dumps it into the New Jersey Meadowlands. (The following episode opens with a shot of asbestos dust blowing into the atmosphere.) The Sopranos begins as a show about a New Jersey mafia boss, but as its scope expands it begins to reveal how, as Tony muses after a near-death experience, “You’re part of something bigger.” In that episode, the fourth of Season Six, Tony befriends a neighboring in-patient, a Schrödinger-quoting physicist who told him, “nothing is separate; everything is connected.” In “Kennedy and Heidi,” AJ has a similar, albeit bleaker, revelation: “Everything is so fucked up.” By that point, the viewer has had a revelation as well: Tony is not just ruining a few lives; he’s destroying an ecosystem. And yet while the show emphasizes the scope of Tony’s misdeeds, it also makes clear that he’s far from the sole agent of destruction. AJ’s depression is not just payment for the sins of his own father; it’s symbolic of a generation, poised to inherit a world ravaged by millions of Tony-like, conspicuous consumers and capitalist thugs.
Although The Sopranos hints at the connections between Tony’s local actions and the more global threats of terrorism and ecocide, it doesn’t doggedly pursue those links. That mission is left to The Wire, a show that, through its similarly diffuse but more sociologically varied ensemble, captures the networks and systems that make us, as individuals, part of something bigger. In the show’s final season, police detective Lester Freamon voices a lofty ambition: by investigating how Baltimore drug money makes its way into the bank accounts of businessmen, real estate developers, local politicians, and police chiefs, he wants to show “how we’re all, all of us vested, all of us complicit” (“Unconfirmed Reports,” episode 2 of Season Five). But if The Wire reveals how global capitalism renders us all economically interdependent (as workers, investors, taxpayers, and consumers), it does more than follow the money. It also follows actions as they travel across networks, to show how our deeds implicate us in the lives of people we rarely see or barely know. In Season Four, after Herc, a charismatic but thoughtless cop, leaks the identity of Randy, a young informant, word quickly spreads on the street that Randy is a “snitch.” Randy’s house is attacked, his loving foster mother is hospitalized, and Randy is forced to return to the group home (a fate that seems to signal the end of his bright prospects). Herc, who doesn’t bother to check up on Randy, remains ignorant of the chain of events he helped to set in motion. But Herc’s more conscientious colleague, Carver, has been closely monitoring Randy’s situation, and tries, months later, to convey to Herc the magnitude of his mistake. When Herc casually responds, “Yeah, I fucked up. So what?” Carver rejoins, “So it mattered. […] It all matters. I know we thought it didn’t, but…it does” (“Transitions,” episode 4 of Season Five).
The Wire traces a causal connection between Herc’s thoughtless action and Randy’s return to the group home, but like The Sopranos, it doesn’t limit the blame to a single individual. The show implicates dozens of characters in Randy’s fate, including the patrolling officers who were too incompetent to guard his home and the social services bureaucrat who ignored Carver’s plea to give Randy special treatment. Going further up the chain of command, the show could be said to blame Commissioner Burrell, whose personal corruption trickles down through the dysfunctional police system, or Mayor Carcetti, whose politically motivated decision to deprioritize public education leaves Randy’s school a breeding ground for violence and delinquency. And so on. In representing such a diversity of institutions, The Wire reveals how “we’re…all of us complicit” under the conditions of institutional modernity. But it also reveals, through the diffuseness of its characters, how often we fail to recognize or feel the extent of that complicity.
It might seem counterintuitive to describe these shows as macroscopic given that all three, in their emphasis on place, belong to the tradition of American regionalism. The Sopranos and The Wire cast their gazes, both tender and reproachful, on the landscapes and dialects of New Jersey and Baltimore (one could imagine Chase defending the state he grew up in as William Faulkner’s Quentin Compson defended the South: “I don’t hate it!”); Breaking Bad, too, draws inspiration from the local color of the Southwest. But that show’s geographic scope has grown increasingly wide: it roves from Albuquerque to the deserts of New Mexico to Mexico and even, in the fifth season, to Germany. Still, much as the show situates Walter— rising kingpin of the Southwest meth trade—in a network of global capitalism, it traces the consequences of his actions back to strangers in his midst. In the penultimate episode of Season Two, Walter passively abets the death of Jesse’s addict girlfriend, Jane, who had become a threat to both Walter’s business and Jesse’s wellbeing. In the season finale, we witness a scene that Walter does not: Jane’s father, an air traffic controller, returns to work still overwhelmed by grief; losing focus on the job, he causes two planes to collide over Albuquerque. Walter and Jane’s father lived close enough to have crossed paths; in fact, they’d chatted at a bar as strangers on the night of Jane’s death. It isn’t until the next season, however, when Walter sees Jane’s father’s picture all over the news (as the apparent “cause” of a plane crash that claimed 167 lives), that Walter begins to recognize his own role in this web of events. Viewers of Breaking Bad have been privy to these connections all along: how national and transnational systems (the drug trade, health care) influence Walter’s local actions; and how his local actions influence people he can’t see or doesn’t know (Jane’s father; the plane crash victims).
For Tony Soprano, the idea that “everything is connected” was a piece of intriguing mysticism, one that caused him momentarily to question his lifestyle after a brush with death, but that he soon forgot upon returning to health and routine. When Walter, a brilliant chemist versed in chaos theory, ponders the interconnectedness of the world, it only fuels his deepening nihilism. “The universe is random,” Walter muses after the plane crash. “It’s subatomic particles in endless, aimless collision” (“Fly,” episode 10 of Season Three). The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad remind viewers that we are all more implicated in each other’s lives than we think, but they also stress the complexity of those ties and the unpredictability of their effects. In this respect, these shows could be said to invite a certain moral resignation. They bring to mind the trope that Bruce Robbins has called the “sweatshop sublime”: the notion that “to glimpse even for a moment the unimaginable face of society-as-a-whole is to go through a near death experience in which the activist self dissolves” (88-89). Tony Soprano, Walter White, and several of the cops and politicians on The Wire succumb to versions of this feeling. Often, on the occasions when these characters recognize the depth and complexity of interconnectedness, their realizations don’t raise their ethical consciousness; rather, they fuel their thoughtlessness, self-interestedness, and even positive harm.
Contrary to what some detractors have claimed, however, the shows don’t endorse the amoral worldviews of their characters. The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad might not be morality tales in the Dickensian mold: rather than one-sided villains who get their comeuppance, they favor nuanced and charismatic antiheroes who literally get away with murder. But they leave viewers feeling, above all, the existential poverty of those amoral lifestyles. Responding to the charge that The Sopranos glorifies mob life, Chase wondered why anyone would envy Tony: “He’s paying every day […] He’s miserable” (interview by Charlie Rose). Likewise, the more wealth and power Walter acquires, the more wretched his personal life becomes. Asked how he felt about his reputation as an “angry man,” The Wire’s David Simon wondered how anyone could look at America, with its corrupt bankers and failing schools, and feel otherwise: “…isn’t anger the appropriate response? What is the appropriate response? Ennui?” (interview by Bill Moyers). These three TV auteurs (Chase, Simon, and Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan) have all been accused of nihilism; in fact, it seems to me, they’re not so different from those nineteenth-century novelists who used fiction to raise the moral hackles of the masses.
The point I want to make, though, isn’t that these shows moralize; it’s that they attune viewers to the surprising scope of moral responsibility. Dickens took advantage of what he once called (alluding to a different medium) “the large canvas and the big brushes,” by writing novels with ensembles so diffuse that characters couldn’t recognize their own interconnectedness. Likewise, Chase, Simon, and Gilligan portray characters who fail to comprehend—or who refuse to imagine—that they are part of something bigger. In their emphasis on chance, these shows certainly don’t pretend that greater awareness of networks would equal perfect moral clarity: even if we were aware of our connectedness to others, they suggest, we could never predict all the consequences of our actions. Still, these shows persistently train the viewer’s attention on the bigger picture that characters repeatedly ignore. “One thing you can never say,” a therapist warns Carmela Soprano, reminding her that her lavish lifestyle depends on Tony’s criminal activity, is “that you haven’t been told” (“Second Opinion,” episode 7 of Season Three). In spite of this advice, Carmela chooses to remain willfully ignorant of her complicity. On The Wire Clarence Royce, the corrupt mayor of Baltimore, shuts out incriminating information with a curt “I don’t wanna know” (“Soft Eyes”, episode 2 of Season Four); Frank Sobotka, a longshoreman involved in a smuggling operation, prefers to be kept in the dark about what he is helping to smuggle (“You don’t ask,” his contact advises him, “because you don’t want to know”) (“Collateral Damage”, episode 2 of Season Two). But viewers of The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad—short of averting their eyes or turning off their TVs—aren’t given this option.
In an interview with Vice magazine, conducted shortly after the conclusion of The Wire, Simon was asked to comment on all the comparisons of his show to Dickens’s novels. The analogy had become especially popular in the wake of a fifth-season episode entitled “The Dickensian Aspect”:
“The Dickensian Aspect.” The Wire.
The Dickens-citing Baltimore Sun editor in this scene, James C. Whiting III (as if that name weren’t damning enough), is portrayed throughout as a budget-cutter and Pulitzer-chaser whose values herald the downfall of serious investigative journalism. Here, Whiting decides to scrap a series on Baltimore’s school system in favor of a “Dickensian” story about homelessness: a story, that is, intended to capture the attention of more readers. As wielded by Whiting, “Dickensian” refers to sensationalistic social-problem journalism with mass appeal. The main target of contempt in this scene isn’t Dickens himself so much as Whiting; indeed, one could even say that the scene ridicules Whiting for misunderstanding Dickens and sullying his name. But Simon’s own description of this episode as a jab at “people who were using Dickens to praise us” betrays his ambivalence toward the novelist.
Simon resisted the comparison, he explained, because The Wire “made a different argument” than Dickens’s novels:
Dickens is famous for being passionate about showing you the fault lines of industrial England and where money and power route themselves away from the poor. He would make the case for a much better social compact than existed in Victorian England, but then his verdict would always be, “But thank God a nice old uncle or this heroic lawyer is going to make things better.” In the end, the guy would punk out.interview with Vice magazine
By favoring tidy resolutions brought about by heroic individuals, Simon suggests, Dickens undermines his initially bold social critiques. The band-aid happy endings of Little Dorrit or Bleak House, by this logic, diminish the urgency of their attacks on finance capitalism or the legal system. And certainly, no one could accuse The Wire of “punking out” in this way. In its final season, one protagonist makes a desperate bid for heroic individualism, only to be conquered by the system he tries to take on. And the season ends with a montage in which younger characters are shown to have taken over roles held by the previous generation (corrupt politicians, homeless addicts, renegade detectives, ambitious drug kingpins). In other words, The Wire ends on a note of perpetuation rather than closure, suggesting that the social ills it has depicted run too deep for a neat resolution. One could quibble with Simon’s characterization of Dickens’s endings, which aren’t always so tidy as that, but Simon’s point is clear enough. He has little patience for those happy endings in which he sees reflected a certain brand of Victorian liberalism: the belief that reform should happen moderately and that inequality might be tempered, in the meantime, by kind-hearted philanthropists.
The comparisons to Dickens were valid in one respect, though, Simon admitted. “I understood what they meant by Dickensian when they said it. You get this sort of scope of society through the classes, the way Dickens would play with that in his novels” (interview with Vice magazine). Simon didn’t elaborate on this, beyond pointing out that many nineteenth-century novelists other than Dickens were also playing with scope. But Dickens’s experiments with narrative scope—and specifically, I’ve tried to show, his device of the stranger narrative, which follows characters so distanced from each other that they fail to perceive their interconnectedness—have come to shape the structure of television today. There is much more to say about scope—the temporal, spatial, and social dimensions of a fictional world—as a feature that unites contemporary TV and the Victorian novel. Vast scopes, not simply large ensembles, bridge these two cultural forms across eras and media; scope helps to explain why The Sopranos,The Wire, and Breaking Bad resonate so deeply with Bleak House, Middlemarch, and The Way We Live Now. And beneath this parallel aesthetic is a shared set of ethical concerns. These macrorealist narratives encourage audiences to attend to what characters do not: the webs of causality and responsibility that render all of us complicit.
Liz Maynes-Aminzade is a Lecturer in History & Literature at Harvard University. Her dissertation explores the history of a genre of fiction that she calls macrorealism, which tries to raise awareness about the ethical problems accompanying a global economy.
The Google books N-gram viewer, which doesn’t reflect trends in online writing, periodicals, or broadcast media, and which becomes less reliable after 2000, isn’t very helpful for measuring the prevalence of the term “Dickensian” in recent years. The New York Times online archive offers perhaps a more useful metric in that respect: a search for “Dickensian” since 1990, when broken down by decade, suggests a gradual rise in usage, averaging 42.1 hits per year over the 1990s, 55.9 per year over the 2000s, and 68.3 per year (over the 2.5 years) since 2010.
Depending on one’s definition of a character, Bleak House contains somewhere between 50 and 70 of them, according to Caroline Levine (“Bleak House and Narrative Networks”).
Accounts of the rise of ambitious television during this period have emphasized, among other factors, the commercial success of HBO’s niche marketing model and the new technologies (DVR, Netflix, streaming) that give audiences increasing control over the viewing experience (and thus, arguably, more patience for complex narratives). For more on this see Jason Mittell.
In her entry on “Space” in TheLiving Handbook of Narratology, Marie-Laure Ryan remarks that most definitions of narrative, “by characterizing stories as the representation of a sequence of events, foreground time at the expense of space.” Among a few exceptions to this, she notes Mikhail Bakhtin’s essay on the “chronotope,” in which he posits space-time configurations as a (even the) defining element of literary genre. Though Bakhtin’s essay remains a syllabus staple, his term hasn’t migrated too far beyond narratology circles–perhaps because of its unwieldiness, but perhaps also because it emphasizes the temporal-spatial dimensions of fictional worlds at the expense of their social dimensions.
David Bordwell has noted a similar trend in recent cinema, which he labels the rise of the “network narrative.” In such films, examples of which include Chungking Express (1994), Pulp Fiction (1994), Magnolia (1999), and Crash (2004), the relationships among characters “can get pretty complicated”: “A is B’s friend, C’s brother, D’s landlord, and E’s lover, while E is D’s sister and B’s employer…” (99).
I’m currently at work on a longer project that explores the stranger narrative in the context of what I call macrorealism, a literary mode that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century and seems to be experiencing a revival in the contemporary moment.
Ross Douthat echoed Klosterman’s observation in a response piece; likewise, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Albert Wu places these three shows (along with Mad Men) in the “Dickensian tradition of morality tales and social critiques dressed in the guise of realism.”
In an interview with The New York Times, Chase described his preference for obliqueness: “I think there should be visuals on a show, some sense of mystery to it, connections that don't add up. I think there should be dreams and music and dead air and stuff that goes nowhere. There should be, God forgive me, a little bit of poetry” (“The Real Boss of ‘The Sopranos’”).
Emily Nussbaum, reflecting on how The Sopranos gradually transforms the viewer’s voyeurism into self-disgust, remarks that this therapist’s line “might serve as a punch line for the series.”
Certain critics have faulted The Wire precisely for its lack of Dickensian optimism. In Dissent, John Atlas and Peter Dreier argue that, although The Wire aims to “spur our country to end the plight of the poor and minorities who live in America’s inner-cities,” its bleakness instead leaves viewers feeling that “the status quo cannot be changed” (“Is The Wire Too Cynical?”).
In fact, in addition to ending mid-sentence, Bleak House similarly ends with a montage that suggests perpetuation. In a series of rapid vignettes, we glimpse characters going about their everyday lives: Sir Dedlock often “may be seen” visiting his wife’s grave, and “the quarrel goes on” between him and Boythorn (907-908); Emma, Charley's sister, “is exactly what Charley used to be” (911); Mrs. Jellyby, after the failure of her Africa Project, “has taken up with the rights of women to sit in Parliament” (912); Mr. Turveydrop “still enjoys himself in the old manner” (912); and so on.
- Atlas, John, and Peter Dreier. “Is The Wire Too Cynical?” Dissent: a Quarterly of Politics and Culture. Dissent Magazine, 25 Mar. 2008. Web. 15 Sept. 2012.
- Bakhtin, M. M. “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel.” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981: 84-259. Print.
- Bordwell, David. The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2006. Print.
- Breaking Bad. Prod. Vince Gilligan. AMC, 2008. DVD.
- Chase, David. Interview by Virginia Heffernan. “The Real Boss of ‘The Sopranos.’” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 29 Feb. 2004. Web. 15 Sept. 2012.
- Chase, David. Interview by Charlie Rose. Charlie Rose. Charlie Rose LLC, 7 Mar. 2001. Web. 15 Sept. 2012.
- Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Ed. Stephen Gill. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996. Print.
- Dickens, Charles. Working notes for Little Dorrit. Reprinted in Little Dorrit. Ed. Stephen Wall and Helen Small. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.
- “The Dickensian Aspect.” The Wire. Writ. David Simon. Dir. Ed Bianchi. HBO, 2004. DVD.
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- Douthat, Ross. “Good and Evil on Cable.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 28 July 2011. Web. 15 Sept. 2012.
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- Klosterman, Chuck. “Bad Decisions: Why Breaking Bad Beats Mad Men, The Sopranos, and The Wire.” Grantland. ESPN Internet Ventures, 12 July 2011. Web. 15 Sept. 2012.
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- “Scope.” OED Online. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, Sept. 2012. OED. Web. 15 Sept. 2012.
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- The Wire. Prod. David Simon. HBO, 2002. DVD.
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- Wu, Albert. “In Hell, ‘We Shall Be Free’: On Breaking Bad.” Los Angeles Review of Books. The Los Angeles Review of Books, 13 July 2012. Web. 15 Sept. 2012.