TV's 'The Wire' Gets New Life In College Classrooms The series has ended on HBO, but it's still being studied from Berkeley, Calif., to Middlebury, Vt. Among the forested New England hills, students explore inner-city drug culture by mainlining 60 hours of The Wire.

TV's 'The Wire' Gets New Life In College Classrooms

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

It's been two years since HBO aired the final episode of "The Wire." Critics praised the TV show for its realistic portrayal of Baltimore's drug culture and its far-reaching influence into the community, families and schools.

Professor JASON MITTELL (American Studies and Film & Media Culture, Middlebury College): Okay, okay. Now, Andre's friend Yvonne is supposed to meet him in Philadelphia.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Wire")

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, Andre's going to (BEEP).

Unidentified Man #2: Can you please shut up? Mr. Prezbo is trying to teach us something.

Unidentified Man #1: You shut up (BEEP). He ain't teaching me nothing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Well, now a handful of elite colleges offer courses built around the show. Vermont Public Radio's Sarah Ashworth sat in on one of the classes at Middlebury College.

SARAH ASHWORTH: A course dedicated to the TV show "The Wire" naturally starts every class the same way.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Wire")

(Soundbite of song, "Way Down the Hole")

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) When you walk through the garden, watch your back...

ASHWORTH: During the semester, students will watch every episode. That's about 60 hours immersed in Baltimore's gritty underside.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Wire")

Unidentified Woman #2: Your daddy, he stood tall for them.

Unidentified Man #3: I know, I know. He a soldier.

Unidentified Woman #2: Like father, like son.

Unidentified Man #3: No doubt.

ASHWORTH: Senior Ben Meader watches with his notebook open and pen poised. He's a geography major who had never seen an episode of the show but decided to add it to his final semester schedule.

Mr. BEN MEADER (Student, Middlebury College): Film and media and television, they have to be regarded as important as literature in how we understand our own culture. And I could watch the show on my own and be like, oh, okay, this is an interesting show, but in order to kind of understand why it was made, when it was made, and how it was made is something that's really complex and I think worth studying.

ASHWORTH: Students delve into the social issues "The Wire" brings up, like the repercussions of legalizing drugs or the impact of lost manufacturing jobs. Their professor, Jason Mittell, is a passionate viewer of films and television. He admired "The Wire" when it aired on HBO and by season five decided he could treat the series as a core text in his classroom.

Prof. MITTELL: I think most people look at television as escapist, as lowbrow, as consumerist and as not something worth in-depth study.

ASHWORTH: A class dedicated to a television show might also look like an easy A, but Mittell tells skeptics to imagine a class devoted to Shakespeare or Dickens. Students read the text, but they also try to understand the period's culture.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Wire")

Mr. AIDAN GILLEN (Actor): (as Tommy Carcetti) We still have a lot of work to do to turn this city around. We need everyone...

ASHWORTH: In the episode they're watching today, smooth politician Tommy Carcetti has just won Baltimore's Democratic primary for mayor, and not all of the students are happy with his election.

Unidentified Woman #5 (Student, Middlebury College): He's found that, you know, sometimes, you just have to delve in deeper into the seedy underbelly of politics, so...

Prof. MITTELL: You have to make choices and, you know, "The Wire" is nothing if not a constant reminder that you always have to choose between usually multiple evils and, you know, there's no simple, clean way to do it.

ASHWORTH: Inner-city Baltimore has little in common with the world most Middlebury students grew up in. The private school charges nearly $52,000 a year, and students like Tahirah Foy seem to recognize the distinction.

Ms. TAHIRAH FOY (Student, Middlebury College): I guess we need to also keep in the back of our mind that this is a story. This is fiction. I doubt that we are all prepared to go to the inner city of Baltimore and chill on a corner because we've watched "The Wire."

ASHWORTH: And just as the work of Dickens and Hitchcock were simply a part of the pop culture of their day, Mittell thinks "The Wire" will one day be viewed as their equal.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Ashworth.

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