Typing Faster

March 25, 2010

Back to School: Why Colleges Are Offering Classes on The Wire

Filed under: Craft, Future of TV, Stuff I Like, The Wire — petertypingfaster @ 9:09 am

Everyone that knows me is aware that I absolutely love The Wire. It is, in my opinion, the best television series ever produced. Head and shoulders above its peers. When people call The Wire Dickensian they’re not exaggerating. It’s more novel than television series.

It belongs in classrooms.

And not just in film and media studies classrooms. The Wire is good enough to be given serious academic study. And over the past few years that’s exactly what its started to get.

Professors at Harvard, U.C.—Berkeley, Duke, and Middlebury are now offering courses on the show.

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.

Asked why he was teaching a class around a TV drama, [Harvard Professor William Julius] 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.

Of course there are Wire focused courses that take a different tack in studying the series.

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.”

And while the show has often been hailed for its accurate depiction of inner city Baltimore, there are interesting lessons to be had in the creative choices David Simon makes in his portrayal of Baltimore.

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.”

Interesting article, worth the read.

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1 Comment »

  1. I love that you’ve differentiated between film scholars and serious academics.

    Thanks for the link, as ever.

    Comment by Elize Morgan — March 25, 2010 @ 1:02 pm


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