This Will Be on the Midterm. You Feel Me?
Why so many colleges are teaching The Wire.
Two of the first courses on The Wire were offered last spring. * One was taught by Jason Mittell, a media scholar at Middlebury, the other by Linda Williams, a film studies scholar in Berkeley's rhetoric department. Of the courses currently being offered, Mittell's is the only one in which the students watch the entire series. In fact, since they screen it in class, watching the 60-hour run is much of what the course actually consists of—five hours a week, with two hours a week of class left for discussion.
What interests Mittell and Williams is the fact that The Wire works despite its subject matter. As a popular entertainment, the series is starting from two rather significant disadvantages: its grim subject matter and the fatalistic worldview of David Simon. Simon has said that the show is meant to be Greek tragedy but with institutions like the police department or the school system taking the place of the gods: the immortal forces that toy with and blithely destroy the mortals below.
Berkeley's Williams argues that the greatness of the show stems from the way it interweaves realism and Simon's tragic vision with the sort of melodramatic elements that television demands: the brotherly bond between Stringer Bell and the gang leader Avon Barksdale, Bubbles' long battle with addiction, the detective Jimmy McNulty's attempts to rein in his self-destructive impulses, the use of foreshadowing and irony throughout. "It's not a simple matter of, 'Oh, it's so real,' " she says. "There's something about the structure, the use of seriality, and obviously the writing."
Much of Williams' course is concerned with exploring how those strands tie together. The assigned reading includes "Respecting the Middle: The Wire's Omar Little as Neoliberal Subjectivity," an essay that brings the work of postmodern theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to bear on Omar, the show's swashbuckling gay stickup man. Other assigned essays, like "The Wire and the Art of the Credit Sequence" parse the show's craft down to its seemingly most peripheral elements.
Jason Mittell aims to give his students a sense of the particular circumstances that shape The Wire. Among other things, it's a show written by white men about mostly black characters and a show about the urban poor that aired on a premium cable channel. Mittell argues that for all its vaunted realism The Wire still has a particular audience in mind, and that audience shapes the sort of stories the show tells and the way it tells them.
Take rape. Mittell assigns his students Philippe Bourgois' book In Search of Respect, an anthropological study of East Harlem crack gangs in the late 1980s and early '90s. One of the strands that runs through the book is what Bourgois describes as "the prevalence and normalcy of rape." Rape is not only common among the gang members Bourgois befriended and studied, it is celebrated.
This is a fact that someone who learned everything about drug gangs from The Wire would be aware of only dimly, if at all. Mittell argues that, conscious or not, this was a decision on the part of the show's creators. Faced with a choice between verisimilitude and drama's demand that the audience identify with the characters, the show's creators, Mittell believes, went with the latter. "It could be that with the specific types of dealers and users that Simon and Burns spent time with, rape was not really part of their culture. The other explanation, which I think is more probable, is that if you portrayed these people as rapists you would lose the ability to make them at all sympathetic and human," says Mittell.
Viewers are willing to sympathize with murderers, whether it's Stringer Bell, Avon Barksdale, or Omar, because there's a sense that they still have a certain code. Portraying them as rapists would make that much harder, Mittell argues. "Rape is a more taboo and emotionally volatile crime to portray on-screen than murder," he says. "Imagine the show Dexter, except instead of being a serial killer, he was a serial rapist."
Asked about the academic uses of the show, Simon himself declined to weigh in, writing in an e-mail, "It's gratifying to have the ideas and arguments that we put forward seriously discussed in any forum, including academia." Wilson, for his part, sees questions like Mittell's as interesting but secondary. There are issues that arise from the ways that the show is fictionalized, he concedes; they're just not the ones that interest him. "You want to talk about it being fiction, call it fiction," he says, "but it shows incredible imagination and understanding about the way the world works, and for me that's enough."
Read the syllabi for classes on The Wire at Syracuse, Loyola University New Orleans, and Washington State University-Spokane.
Drake Bennett is the staff writer for the Boston Globe Ideas section.
Still from The Wire © 2002-2008 Home Box Office. All rights reserved.