Why are professors at Harvard, Duke, and Middlebury teaching courses on David Simon's The Wire?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
March 24 2010 7:08 AM

This Will Be on the Midterm. You Feel Me?

Why so many colleges are teaching The Wire.

The Wire.
The Wire

Among the police officers and drug dealers and stickup men and politicians and dockworkers and human smugglers and teachers and students and junkies and lawyers and journalists who populate the late, great HBO series The Wire, there is one academic. His name is David Parenti and he teaches social work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. He is not a major character, but he appears throughout the show's fourth season—an earnest, well-meaning man defined in part by his naïveté about the inner-city kids whose lives he wants to improve. As for Johns Hopkins, Baltimore's best-known university, it only comes up as a place where the show's police officers can get cushy campus security jobs after they retire. Academia, in other words, is not a culture that the show's creators, David Simon and Ed Burns, betray much interest in exploring.

Academics, on the other hand, can't seem to get enough of The Wire. Barely two years after the show's final episode aired—and with Simon's new show, Treme, premiering next month on HBO—there have already been academic conferences, essay anthologies, and special issues of journals dedicated to the series. Not content to write about it and discuss it among themselves, academics are starting to teach it, as well. Professors at Harvard, U.C.—Berkeley, Duke, and Middlebury are now offering courses on the show.

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Interestingly, the classes aren't just in film studies or media studies departments; they're turning up in social science disciplines as well, places where the preferred method of inquiry is the field study or the survey, not the HBO series, even one that is routinely called the best television show ever. Some sociologists and social anthropologists, it turns out, believe The Wire has something to teach their students about poverty, class, bureaucracy, and the social ramifications of economic change.

The academic love affair with The Wire is not, as it turns out, a totally unrequited one. One of the professors teaching a course on the show is the sociologist William Julius Wilson—his class, at Harvard, will be offered this fall. Simon has said that Wilson's book When Work Disappears, an exploration of the crippling effects of the loss of blue-collar jobs in American cities, was the inspiration for the show's second season, which focused on Baltimore's struggling dockworkers.

Wilson's class, a seminar, will require students to watch selected episodes of the show, three or more a week, he says. Some seasons, like the fourth, with its portrayal of the way the public school system fails poor children, will get more time than others. Students will also read works of sociology: two books by Wilson, as well as Elijah Anderson's Code of the Street, Sandra Susan Smith's Lone Pursuit, Bruce Western's Punishment and Inequality in America, and Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh's Off the Books, works that explore poverty, incarceration, unemployment, and the underground economy.

Asked why he was teaching a class around a TV drama, Wilson said the show makes the concerns of sociologists immediate in a way no work of sociology he knows of ever has. "Although The Wire is fiction, not a documentary, its depiction of [the] systemic urban inequality that constrains the lives of the urban poor is more poignant and compelling [than] that of any published study, including my own," he wrote in an e-mail.

For Wilson, the unique power of the show comes from the way it takes fiction's ability to create fully realized inner lives for its characters and combines that with qualities rare in a piece of entertainment: an acuity about the structural conditions that constrain human choices (whether it's bureaucratic inertia, institutional racism, or economic decay) and an unparalleled scrupulousness about accurately portraying them. Wilson describes the show's characters almost as a set of case studies, remarkable for the vividness with which they embody a set of arguments about the American inner city. "What I'm concentrating on is how this series so brilliantly illustrates theories and processes that social scientists have been writing about for years," he said in an interview.

Anne-Maria Makhulu, a social anthropologist at Duke teaching a course there on The Wire this spring, makes a similar point about the show's power as a social document. She finds that, for many of her largely upper-middle-class students, issues like poverty and urban deindustrialization are remote from their daily lives, and simply reading about them does little to bridge that gap. The Wire puts faces and stories to those forces—Stringer Bell, the gang leader with the heart of a CFO; Bubbles, the wry, entrepreneurial junkie; "Bunny" Colvin, the police major who grows so disenchanted by the war on drugs that he tries legalizing them in his district.

"There's this question of how you appeal to young people who feel—not all of them but many of them—far removed from the type of people who are the major characters in The Wire," Makhulu says.

The media scholars offering courses on The Wire treat the show differently. They're quick to point out the show's impressive verisimilitude, and they're happy, they say, to see the show being studied across academic disciplines. But to these thinkers, treating the show simply as a look into the intricacies of the American inner city is incomplete.

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.

Read the syllabus for Linda Williams' class at Berkeley.

Correction, March 31, 2010: The article originally stated that the two course were the first to be taught on The Wire. The series had been taught at the college level before. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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