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‘The Wire’ TV Show Winds Its Way Into University Curriculum

By David Michaels Posted: 09/21/2010
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“The Wire,” a television drama series, has formed the basis for a recently introduced course at Emory. The show, set is Baltimore, includes themes such as drug traffiking, bureaucracy and the media.
Since its debut in 2002, the HBO hit television drama “The Wire” has captivated a fanbase so diverse that it ranges from Eminem to President Obama. The show has also been lauded by television critics as one of the greatest television programs of all-time due to its eye-opening portrayal of the drug epidemics, political corruption and failed educational institutions that plague the typical American city.

Although the series came to an end in 2008, universities such as Harvard, Duke and Berkeley have discovered ways to keep alive the lessons of the show, as the series is increasingly being examined inside college classrooms to stimulate discussion on the problems facing the urban lower class society.

This year, Emory is following suit. Emory’s interdisciplinary studies department is offering a writing requirement course titled “Watching The Wire,” a discussion-oriented class ­— now in its first semester — based on the show that is just as much praised for its high entertainment value as it is for its socioeconomic commentary.

The 201 level class was developed out of a department initiative created last year that allows graduate students to teach courses based on their own studies in order to help expose undergraduates to examples of higher-level research.

The class was created and is taught by Ajit Chittambalam, a Ph.D student in Emory’s Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts (ILA) program. He designed the course based on the models of classes taught on “The Wire” at other schools while also throwing some of his own wrinkles into the curriculum.

Students in the class are usually assigned to watch a minimum of three hour-long episodes a week. However, they must also complete weekly reading assignments that incorporate topics in the show into class discussion.

The course is structured by condensing “The Wire”’s vast range of themes into weekly keywords. Students will present on one of the keywords throughout the duration of the semester.

Chittambalam feels that the class works better in an interdisciplinary department, rather than as a film studies or urban studies class. “Being able to combine elements from a range of academic perspectives allows for a more complete understanding and appreciation of the show,” he said.

“From professors I spoke to and looked up [who] teach this class, they’re broadly divided into two camps,” he continued. “For example, William Julius Wilson, who is perhaps the foremost urban sociologist professor in the country and teaches at Harvard, teaches it almost as if it was an ethnographic document. A lot of other people in media studies departments teach it by looking at TV as a form of literature, the serial narrative. I wanted to put those two approaches together, because in my perspective it seems that each one is a little insufficient.”

The show was created by former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, along with former homicide detective Ed Burns. Simon’s and Burns’ career backgrounds and experiences have lent them the insight needed to create a work of fiction that functions almost as a journalistic documentary to expose middle- and upper-class suburban viewers to an urban underclass world — a world that many would not otherwise be able to understand or identify with.

“I never thought it was possible to incorporate a show [into a class] and actually learn stuff from it, but it brings up so many issues that other shows do not bring up or that you don’t normally pay attention to,” said Erika Rief, a college sophomore currently enrolled in the class. “Talking about the underclass has brought up a lot of issues about worlds you never see. In the presentation I gave today I talked about different isolated cities within a city and how you don’t see the entire city when you go downtown for a night.”

While Chittambalam acknowledged that no other show could be used to teach a class nearly as well as “The Wire” can be, due to the unique and complex nature of the show, he also noted that television in general can be a useful tool for teaching a broad array of topics.

“Television is the most thriving art form there is today,” he said. “People compare ‘The Wire’ to Dickens, and sometimes people forget that Dickens serialized his novels in the newspaper. At that period, the newspaper was this medium that could reflect the city, that went to everyone ... where you have something that tries to do the condition of the English novel. ‘The Wire’ is sort of the Dickens for today in the way it can capture different mediums in the serialized form. But I don’t think that people get the thrill out of reading Dickens that they do with ‘The Wire.’”

Of all the issues the show addresses in its portrayal of a gritty and urban America city-life, the most prevalent theme throughout the duration of the program’s five seasons is the failure of the so-called “War on Drugs.” Chittambalam said he tries to convey how these issues faced by the underclass are even relatable for suburban kids who have never been exposed to such a different socioeconomic environment.

As the course progresses into the later seasons of the show, he also hopes to connect the issues depicted in urban educational systems and housing markets to the local problems that are currently facing the city of Atlanta.

“It’s a window into a kind of world and issues that we don’t have to confront on a day-to-day basis,” Chittambalam said. “One of the things I’m most interested in is spending time on that disconnect. We’re privileged; we have access to certain things. We’re watching a show on a very different world than us. So what? Is it just entertainment? Is there social argument? If it’s convincing, are you going to change the way you vote, the way you think, because of it? What are the stakes of watching that? I want people to feel a little uncomfortable. It’s not an easy question. ‘The Wire’ doesn’t have any easy answers. I want people to recognize their relationship to those issues and look at how [the themes are] an allegory for things going on around us.”

Chittambalam believes that no matter how informative and thought-provoking the show may be, it would not have been able to foster the type of dialogue and discussion that it has if it was not also grippingly entertaining television. The show’s quality of writing, vivid characters and complex, layered plotline have consistently been praised for keeping the show enjoyable despite its underlying pessimistic and cynical outlook on American institutions.

“Other that the fact that it’s just terrifically entertaining — it’s funny, it’s heartbreaking —, you have a TV series that is considered perhaps the best literature of any sort in the last 25 years,” he said, adding that the show focuses on “a world and a set of social issues that if you just had to take a writing requirement class on, you may think is boring and say why do I want to take this class?”

“But my question would be: how is it that this literature has done this and why are sociologists teaching this show? It’s just sort of a chance to explore a piece of art that has managed to shed light and bring to life certain issues that decades of other disciplines have failed to do,” he said.

— Contact David Michaels.

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