A white police officer leaves the station to pick up takeout for his unit when a call comes in over the radio that an armed black suspect is in his vicinity. Moments later, the cop thinks he spots the suspect and shoots him dead. But it turns out the man he shot was another officer, a black undercover cop. Immediately there is public outcry that the shooting was racially motivated.
The scenario could be ripped from the headlines. Instead, it comes from a fictional television show that, despite going off the air eight years ago, is proving its relevance today in classrooms around the country, including at St. Olaf College. “The Wire,” which ran on HBO from 2002-2008, is the subject of a weighty winter class at the Northfield college that explores race and politics in America.
Television has for decades been a tool for examining real life in an academic setting. In the current golden age of television, premium cable and streaming services in particular are offering more shows that challenge viewers with realistic takes on the issues of the day.
In the case of “The Wire,” considered by many critics to be one of television’s best dramas, its fictional world offers a safe zone and a starting point for students to explore topics that are sensitive and sometimes painful.
“The ever-presence of police brutality in ‘The Wire’ gives some very timely and very realistic material for thinking about problems of policing in the United States,” said Joshua Anderson, the political science professor who created the St. Olaf course. “But what I like about ‘The Wire’ is that it is fictional, and I think that takes some of the emotional stakes out of the conversation about race.”
Watching scenes like the one described above gives students an opportunity to delve into complex topics without getting personal. They become invested in characters enough to see their points of view, ones they may not have always shared.
“Because you’re working in this fictional world, you can both provide an experience for people who don’t feel like race is directly related to their experience, but you can also divorce the conversation from people’s real-life experiences in a way that lowers the emotional stakes,” Anderson said.
Hard and haunting
Created by a former crime reporter at the Baltimore Sun, “The Wire” dives deep into urban life, focusing on drugs and gangs, education and media, and, most centrally, law enforcement. It exposes the gritty and often corrupt interplay between a city and its institutions. Since the series wrapped, it has become a companion piece to courses on everything from poverty to ethics, in classrooms from Harvard to the University of California, Berkeley.
When Anderson first pitched the course, he was concerned that the rampant profanity and depictions of extreme violence, nudity and drug use might be too sensitive for the Lutheran liberal arts college. “It’s a hard show,” he said.
But St. Olaf embraced it, and this January’s third iteration saw a wait list of a dozen students.
The course, which meets daily for four weeks, requires students to watch the first three seasons of the series — about two episodes per night for homework, plus accompanying readings. Just because it is a television show doesn’t mean it’s pure entertainment.
“I sometimes have to take breaks from it, just sit down and process,” said Emma Reno, a junior music major. “It’s not like watching any other TV show. It’s a little bit traumatizing.”
Laurie Ouellette, a communication studies professor at the University of Minnesota, considers the socially conscious programs of the 1970s — “All in the Family,” “Good Times,” “Maude” — as the precursors to today’s highly acclaimed dramas on premium cable and online platforms.
“What used to be a mass medium has opened up, and in some ways created this new category of television which has a certain amount of prestige, in part because it explores a kind of social realism,” Ouellette said. “There is so much richness and complexity in these series that they lend themselves to discussion.”
She has seen gender studies and advertising courses that study the world of “Mad Men,” and she herself has brought everything from “16 and Pregnant” to “Everybody Loves Raymond” into her television studies classes.
But “The Wire,” with its cachet as a serious and well-crafted drama, she said, has “become something like another academic text.”
Prominent African-American history scholar William Julius Wilson launched a course on the “The Wire” at Harvard in 2010. At a panel discussion with actors from the show, he explained his academic interest in it.
“I do not hesitate to say that it has done more to enhance our understanding of the challenges of urban life and the problems of urban inequality, more than any other media event or scholarly publication, including studies by social scientists,” Wilson said.
At the time, David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” told Slate, “It’s gratifying to have the ideas and arguments that we put forward seriously discussed in any forum, including academia.”
Those discussions have only grown more relevant in recent years.
The first time Anderson taught the St. Olaf course was a few months before the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
“The topic of police brutality was not on the public agenda at all,” he said. “Sometimes, students would say, ‘Is this real?’ ”
Now, post-Ferguson, he said, “I don’t get those questions anymore.”
At a recent class, students dissected the Season 3 episode in which the white cop shoots the black undercover officer. The shooter, Prez, is a clumsy officer but a likable guy who had found his forte working with computers. He was never supposed to be in the situation that led him to shoot and kill another person. He is so distraught afterward that he is put on suicide watch.
Emnet Shibre, a junior, spoke up in class about that scene.
“Something that watching ‘The Wire’ has done for me is give me more sympathy for the situations that officers find themselves in,” she said. “I’m very outspoken about Black Lives Matter and police brutality, but at the same time, Prez didn’t even want to be doing that kind of thing. So this speaks to the bigger structure that is acting on these officers.”
Because of “The Wire,” she realized, “Oh, this is very complicated.”