THE CATALYST: Television isn’t a standard jumping-off point for an academic course. But The Wire, the acclaimed HBO series that ran from 2002 through 2008 and that Entertainment Weekly ranked as the best-ever TV show, isn’t standard television. Its layered, engrossing depiction of Baltimore—informed by creator and writer David Simon’s work as a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun—appealed to Anne-Maria Makhulu, an associate professor of cultural anthropology and African & African American studies. After hearing about the show “through colleagues who were raving about it,” she consumed the entire series in a fivemonth span. “It struck me quickly that it was extremely teachable,” says Makhulu, who this spring is teaching the fifth iteration of the course (eponymous with the show). “It seemed like really good urban anthropology. It tells a really compelling story about American cities in decline, about large structural forces of de-industrialization, and outsourcing shipping jobs and manufacturing overseas.”
THE GIST: The overarching question of both the show and the course centers on the metropolis: Why do cities develop as they do? To answer that, one must examine supporting questions that are raised throughout the show’s five seasons: questions about race, class, and identity; about public housing and education; and about institutional incentives and disincentives. In short, the course explores the myriad problems that have befallen the American city throughout history, while also analyzing the social and cultural underpinnings of urban issues. “It can be great talking about why American cities physically look like they do, but also about setting to rights some of the literature that suggests there’s something inherent to the inner city in the way of people’s poor choices and their inability to climb out of poverty,” Makhulu says.
ASSIGNMENT LIST: In addition to covering all sixty episodes of the show, Makhulu pulls in books like Hamilton Carroll’s Affirmative Reaction to explore the development and perceived erosion of white masculinity, and writings that explore human cultural geography to help explain “why Baltimore has tens of thousands of derelict buildings and shuttered warehouses.” The works of William Julius Wilson, Thomas Sugrue, and Sudhir Venkatesh help elucidate elements of urban poverty. In-class discussions consider these issues, as well as questions related to life in post-9/11 America.
THE TWIST: When dealing with a show as complex and counterintuitive as The Wire, even the basic question of right and wrong requires a bit of recalibrating. As the show’s first season focuses on rival drug dealers in housing projects and rule-skirting police investigators, the eighteen-person seminar quickly learns such a distinction is tricky. “Very early on, we start off thinking about what are the fuzzy boundaries between illegal and legal activity,” Makhulu says, offering the counter-example of a babysitter who simply doesn’t file her earnings in April. “Is it really just not paying taxes, or is it you’re committing a crime of some sort? We try to chart out what that looks like.”