Course Instructor Days Times Room


The Wire and Contemporary Modernity

At various points in the history of narrative, a specific form can become so powerful that it occupies the cultural center of the world in which it emerges.  The classical Greek stage, the Elizabethan theater, the serial novel of the 19th century, the standalone “book of the world” of Euroamerican modernist fiction—each seems both to concentrate and to shape the character of its time and place.  In contemporary narrative, there may not be a single medium that fulfills this role, but televised serial drama is certainly a primary way that US society now represents and understands itself.  The Wire, a series about the life of the city of Baltimore, is a leading example of what this medium can now accomplish, and it is widely recognized as one of the greatest dramas, televised or otherwise, of the new century.  It has already drawn comparison to classic narratives, both dramatic and literary, of previous eras, and can be studied for its writing and its narrative structure as well as its performances.

In this class, The Wire will be a window into what we will be calling “contemporary modernity”—that is, current forms of institutions that have been central to modern life.  The state, the police, the family, the media, the labor union—all have been with us for a long time now, yet all are changing in our current post-9/11 moment.  The course will thus be a study in long arcs of continuity as well as in recent changes in the way we live, and the ways we think and feel about the way we live.

Students who take this class will be watching every episode of The Wire—an average of four per week—and reading various essays or book excerpts related to it in order to enrich class discussion.  The discussion itself will be quite wide-ranging, touching upon topics as diverse as the character of modern institutions, the role of politics in urban life, the relationship between work and family, and the nature of class divisions.  The Wire is not easy to watch, but it is very rewarding, and students should expect to leave the course with a strong sense of how and why it matters.

Please note:  Despite its subject matter, which frequently concerns crime, The Wire is fairly restrained in its portrayals of violence, sometimes skipping over the scenes in which it occurs and simply showing us the after-effects.  However, students watching the series for the first time should still expect some graphic portrayals of violence, together with a constant stream of workaday profanity, such as one hears in many sectors of the real world, and some frankly portrayed sexual content.  Do not take the course if you do not want to view such material, or cannot do so in good conscience.


Reading quizzes, both on the assigned viewing and on the secondary readings that accompany it, will be constant.

The majority of the final grade will come from a large research project, due at the end of term.


See above.


Students will be allowed four absences.  Additional absences will damage the final grade; the more absences there are, the worse the damage will be.  If some absences are excused, the damage can be reduced but not erased.  Students should be aware that this policy is never altered, and that it has been the primary factor in drops and failures in previous terms.  Take this into consideration before deciding to register for the course.


*All five seasons of The Wire, currently downloadable on iTunes and Amazon and available on dvd.  Regardless of which format students choose, the total cost of all five seasons will be about $100.  The series is also streamable on HBOGo, so if you already have access to HBO on cable, you may be able to stream the show for free.

NOTE: students purchasing The Wire on dvd should avoid the complete series box set, which has serious manufacturing defects.

*Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault.

Additional readings TBA.