This spring, alongside my regular Shakespeare class, I team-taught a course on HBO’s The Wire, written by David Simon and Ed Burns. We are not the first university to do this—Harvard and Duke, among others, have also offered courses on the show.
Ours filled up immediately. Students may have thought it would be an easy elective, but if so, they had a rude awakening. The material was not easy. The Wire has plot and linguistic elements as complicated as any Shakespeare play, and its connection to the society it represents is equally as productive of thought and discussion. I’m not suggesting the show is on a par with Shakespeare, but The Wire is Shakespearean in scope and ambition.
For those not familiar with the series, it transpires in inner-city Baltimore. The main protagonists are police officers and drug dealers, who are pitted against each other and divided within their respective organizations. These conflicts fan out to affect other parts of the city: the unions (Season 2), the political system (Season 3), the educational system (Season 4), and the media (Season 5). Although the setting is Baltimore, it could be any American city where poverty, ignorance, and crime combine with bureaucracy, laziness, and greed to produce gridlock. One heavy-handed but powerfully metaphorical moment occurs in the opening vignette of Episode 4, Season 1, when the detectives try to move a heavy desk through a narrow space. Only after the men, positioned on both sides of the desk, find themselves winded do they discover that they have been pushing in opposite directions.
The series takes a mostly despairing view of what can be done to solve the systemic problems of urban life. But it presents moments of great pathos, courage, and humor along the way. There are also minor triumphs. It makes for riveting television, important social commentary, and enduring art.
Our course was open only to honors students and limited to an enrollment of 20. I was one of three instructors—who divided one-course remuneration among us for the chance to teach together. In many ways, we instructors reflect the ethnic make-up of the show: I am a Jewish-American woman from the New Jersey suburbs; Dan Driscoll has Irish ancestry and lives in South Philadelphia; and Robert Watts is an African American from Washington, D.C. with time spent, as it happens, in Baltimore. There was lots of overlap here with the creators of the series, Simon and Burns, and the people they brought in as consultants, cowriters, and directors—a diversity reflected in the show’s characters.
Joseph Conrad famously proclaimed his goal as “above all, to make you see.” Conrad was aiming to do this, of course, “by the power of the written word.” Movies and television may seem too attached to literal seeing to make Conrad’s conceptual “seeing” seem relevant. But a show like The Wire is an exception. It requires you to follow closely a complex plot and the often oblique, slang-ridden, and profanity-soaked language. It means determining where a character is feigning or authentic, where a storyline involves foreshadowing and where it is false or cheesy (very little in The Wire is). In this way the show is a literary work. Indeed, the quality of seeing—how rich and contradictory this is with respect to characters’ motives and the implications of their actions—becomes an index for how good the work is, regardless of the medium.
In a culture in which words are so often accompanied by images, and where words and images are so often at cross-purposes, to exercise the kind of nuanced “seeing” that a television series like The Wire demands is not only a compelling experience. It is also a necessary skill.