Colleges examine 'The Wire' as social critique

Creator David Simon pleased by attention to his themes of fraud, urban inequality

November 15, 2009|By Jill Rosen | jill.rosen@baltsun.com

"The Wire" ended nearly two years ago, but conversation about the show set in Baltimore is still going strong - particularly on American college campuses.

When a noted Harvard sociology professor recently announced he was planning a course based on the HBO series about Baltimore's urban dysfunction, the university became the latest in a string of prestigious schools to study the drama.

Creator David Simon, reached this week in New Orleans, where he's filming his new series, called the academic consideration of his work "gratifying."

"We did not design the show purely as an entertainment, but as a political treatise and social critique," he wrote in an e-mail to The Baltimore Sun. "To the extent that academia has found the work and is intent on extending the discussion, we are, of course, pleased."

Simon said he's also happy that the social themes he worked into the series will be getting more attention - themes including "the fraud of the drug war, the evisceration of the working class, our inability to reform our political infrastructure, the inequality of educational opportunity and, lastly, the declining ambitions and viability of high-end journalism."

Harvard professor William Julius Wilson plans to teach his course in fall 2010. "As a sociologist, an expert on urban poverty, and the author of book that David Simon said helped frame Season 2 ["When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor"], my enthusiasm for the show is extremely high. To say that I am a huge fan is putting it mildly," he said. "The students in the class will watch and critique selective episodes of 'The Wire' along with assigned readings on urban inequality, including two of my books that are based on research in the inner-city black neighborhoods of Chicago, that relate to the specific episodes."

Colleges including University of California, Berkeley; Middlebury College; and Duke University are among those that have offered courses on the show.

Middlebury professor Jason Mittell, who specializes in both American studies and film and media culture, taught a course last spring that was so successful, he plans to do it again next year.

He said people fought to get into the class and that after it was over, students told him it was "if not the best class they've ever taken, ... the one they'll remember the most."

Mittell says there's never been anything on television as artistically or socially robust as "The Wire." He dedicated his course to the question: "What does 'The Wire' teach us about television as an art form and about American culture?"

At Berkeley, film studies professor Linda Williams called her course "What's So Great About 'The Wire'?"

Plenty, she says. During the class, she held the show up to such classic writers as Dickens, Dreiser and Balzac.

"I was following the lead of David Simon ... who has pointed to great novels and called his show a visual novel," Williams explained. "I really believed it was the best thing I had seen and maybe not just on television. ... I wanted to try to study it the way I would a smart film, with a smart class."

Though she offered this year's class exclusively as a senior seminar, Williams plans to expand it next spring.

No Z on TV
David Zurawik is on assignment. His column will return next week.

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