• Syllabus

    AMST/FMMC 0277 - Urban American & Serial Television:

    Watching The Wire

    Professor Jason Mittell, Axinn 208, 443-3435

    Office Hours: Mon / Tues / Thurs 10:30-12:00

    Class Meetings: T/Th 1:30 - 4:15 pm, Axinn 232

    Mon 7:45 - 9:45 pm, Axinn 232

    This syllabus will be updated as the course progresses. Students are responsible to check regularly for updates.


    The Wire is dissent; it argues that our systems are no longer viable for the greater good of the most, that America is no longer operating as a utilitarian and democratic experiment. If you are not comfortable with that notion, you won't agree with some of the tonalities of the show. I would argue that people comfortable with the economic and political trends in the United States right now -- and thinking that the nation and its institutions are equipped to respond meaningfully to the problems depicted with some care and accuracy on The Wire -- well, perhaps they're playing with the tuning knobs when the back of the appliance is in flames. - David Simon

    Frequently hailed as a masterpiece of American television, The Wire shines a light on urban decay in contemporary America, creating a dramatic portrait of Baltimore’s police, drug trade, shipping docks, city hall, public schools, and newspapers over five serialized seasons. In this course, we will watch and discuss all of this remarkable—and remarkably entertaining—series and place it within the dual contexts of contemporary American society and the aesthetics of television. This is a time-intensive course with a focus on close viewing and discussion, and opportunities for critical analysis and research about the show’s social contexts and aesthetic practices.

    The goals of this course are two-fold. First, we hope to understand The Wire in the context of its medium: how does it fit within and go beyond the norms of television? What makes it distinct from other media? Second, we will examine the show's portrayal of urban America as a window into a number of social problems and conditions distinct to contemporary society, including the drug war, the underclass, urban policies and development, post-industrial cities, political corruption, urban education, and mass media coverage. How does The Wire get us to understand, and to feel, these conditions in a novel and affecting way? And where does it leave us, in terms of the potential for solving these social ills?


    Required Reading (available for purchase at College bookstore and on reserve at library):

    Philippe Bourgois, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

    Richard Price, Clockers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992).

    David Simon and Edward Burns, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (New York: Broadway Books, 1998).

    There are two copies of The Wire on reserve for use at the library under PN1992.77 .W53 2008D. Additional readings are linked from the course website.


    Assignments & Assessment:

    Students will be assessed on their participation in the course, both in-class and online; on their two assigned essays and final project. More details will be forthcoming throughout the semester on these assignments.

    Online Participation:

    Since much of the in-class time will be spent viewing The Wire collectively, students are expected to extend their discussion outside of class onto the Moodle site. Students are expected to make at least 2 postings of significance per week - these can be detailed comments on another posting, including discussion questions posted by the professor, or original posts on a topic of your choosing. The goal is not to quantify participation, so students who contribute to the blog in a variety of ways will be considered active, while students who do not participate regularly or with substance will be penalized.

    In-class Participation:

    Students are expected to attend class punctually and ready to watch The Wire, with reading accomplished each week and prepared to engage in discussion. Students who miss more than 2 class meetings without excuse will be penalized significantly, as will students who are frequently late or disengaged.


    You will be graded based on the following scale, using a 4.0 scale on all assignments:

    • A (4.0) indicates truly excelling on assignments, demonstrating mastery of the material and significantly surpassing the expectations of the assignment.
    • B (3.0) indicates above-average work, clearly achieving the course goals and completing all assignments in a strong fashion.
    • C (2.0) indicates satisfactorily meeting the course requirements in an adequate fashion.
    • D (1.0) indicates not achieving course goals and not adequately meeting expectations.
    • F (0.0) indicates dramatically failing to meet course goals and course expectations.

    Submitting Work:

    All papers should be submitted via Moodle as an attached .doc or .rtf file format document. Late papers are highly discouraged, as they throw off schedules for both student and professor. If you must hand in any assignment later than the deadline, please contact the professor in advance as soon as the situation becomes apparent – together arrangements can be made, often without penalties. If a paper is not turned in on time without making advance arrangements with Professor Mittell or a Dean’s excuse, the paper will be penalized by one mark (e.g. an A- becomes a B+) for each day of lateness.

    Academic Dishonesty:

    All work you submit must be your own and you may not inappropriately assist other students in their work beyond the confines of a particular assignment, in keeping with the Middlebury College Honor Code. All papers and exams must include the statement of the Honor Code along with the student’s name (as a digital signature) in order to be graded. There is a no-tolerance policy for academic misconduct in this course! The minimum penalty for academic misconduct will be a failing grade (F) for the course – further academic and disciplinary penalties may be assessed. The definitions of plagiarism and cheating used in this course are consistent with the material in the College Handbook, Chapter V.

    Course Policies:

    Any student with a disability or who otherwise needs accommodation or assistance should make arrangements with Professor Mittell as soon as possible. If you know that you will have conflicts due to athletics or other college activities, you must notify Professor Mittell in advance and arrange to make up missed work – athletic absences are not excused and it is the student’s responsibility to make all arrangements.

    Email is Professor Mittell’s preferred mode of communication (besides face-to-face conversation!), generally checking regularly during the work week – if you email him asking for a response and do not receive one within one working day (M-F), assume that your email may not have been received. Office voicemails will typically be answered less promptly. Please do not call Professor Mittell at home.


    Printing & Computer Use Policy:

    Writing assignments for this course are done through Moodle, with no printing required. Many readings are online – students are welcome to print or not print at their choosing, with the understanding that students should take notes on readings either via digital annotation or separate notebook or word processing file. You should bring readings to class each day, either via paper or on a laptop screen. Feel free to use laptops throughout all class meetings except during screenings, where the light from the screen can disrupt the viewing experience. If you are on your laptop, you are expected to engage with course materials, not free-range surfing the web, checking email, Facebook, etc.


    Cutting You Some Slack:

    College is one of the few situations in life where the expectations are clearly laid out and the consequences for meeting or missing those expectations is transparent. The grading system and workload has been designed to be as fair and straightforward as possible, allowing students to choose how to prioritize the class versus other obligations or interests. However, there may be times that things become challenging and you want to ask for some leniency. One time per semester, students may request to be cut some slack, resulting in a more flexible attitude toward grading or other policies. Simply type on an assignment, or send an email describing the request, with the phrase “please cut me some slack” – Professor Mittell will adjust his expectations accordingly. Slack cannot be requested after a grade has been given, nor will it apply toward honor code violations.


    Course Schedule

    Monday nights meet in AXN 232; T/Th screen in AXN 232, discuss in AXN 229

    All readings should be completed by Monday each week


    Feb 12: Course Intro

    WATCH: #1 “The Target” & #2 “The Detail”

    Feb 14: WATCH: #3 “The Buys”

    READ: David Simon, “Letter to HBO

    Jason Mittell, “The Wire in the Context of American Television

    Feb 15: special screening at 1:30, AXN 232

    WATCH: #4 “Old Cases” & #5 “The Pager”


    Feb 18: WATCH: #6 “The Wire” & #7 “One Arrest”

    READ: Richard Price, Clockers, parts 1 & 2 (through p. 292)

    Feb 19: WATCH: #8 “Lessons”

    Feb 21: WATCH: #9 “Game Day” & #10 “The Cost”


    Feb 25: WATCH: #11 “The Hunt” & #12 “Cleaning Up”

    READ: Richard Price, Clockers, finish book

    Feb 26: WATCH: #13 “Sentencing” (end season 1)

    Feb 28: WATCH: #14 “Ebb Tide” & #15 “Collateral Damage”

    CONTRIBUTE: Online SocialBook version of “Cleaning Up”


    Mar 4: WATCH: #16 “Hot Shots” & #17 “Hard Cases”

    READ: Philippe Bourgois, In Search of Respect, Intro - Ch. 4 (to p. 173)

    Mar 5: WATCH: #18 “Undertow"

    Mar 7: WATCH: #19 “All Prologue” & #20 “Backwash”


    Mar 11: WATCH: #21 “Duck & Cover” & #22 “Stray Rounds”

    READ: Philippe Bourgois, In Search of Respect, finish book

    Alyssa Rosenberg, “Shootouts in The Wire” (note: spoiler for end of s3 toward end of this short piece - sorry!)

    Mar 12: WATCH: #23 “Storm Warnings” & #24 “Bad Dreams”

    Mar 14: WATCH: #25 “Port in a Storm” (end season 2)


    Mar 18: WATCH: #26 “Time After Time” & #27 “All Due Respect”

    READ: David Simon & Ed Burns, The Corner, “Winter” (through p. 182)

    Laura Lippman, “The Women of The Wire

    Mar 19: WATCH: #28 “Dead Soldiers” & #29 “Hamsterdam”

    Mar 21: Essay #1 due before class

    WATCH: #30 “Straight and True”


    Mar 23-31: Spring Break


    Apr 1: WATCH: #31 “Homecoming” & #32 “Back Burners”

    READ: David Simon & Ed Burns, The Corner, “Spring” & “Summer” (183-390)

    Apr 2: WATCH: #33 “Moral Midgetry”

    Apr 4: WATCH: #34 “Slapstick” & #35 “Reformation”


    Apr 8: WATCH: #36 “Middle Ground” & #37 “Mission Accomplished” (end of season 3)

    READ: David Simon & Ed Burns, The Corner, finish book

    Apr 9: WATCH: #38 “Boys of Summer”

    Apr 11: WATCH: #39 “Soft Eyes” & #40 “Home Rooms


    Apr 15: WATCH: #41 “Refugees” & #42 “Alliances”

    READ: Shaun Huston, “Balancing on The Wire
    Jason Mittell, “All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling and Procedural Logic
    Caroline Levine, "From Genre to Form"
    Nelson George, “Across Racial Lines
    Janny Scott, “Who Gets to Tell a Black Story?

    Apr 16: WATCH: #43 “Margin of Error”

    Apr 18: WATCH: #44 “Unto Others” & #45 “Corner Boys”


    Apr 22: WATCH: #46 “Know Your Place” & #47 “Misgivings”

    READ: John Atlas and Peter Dreier, “Is The Wire Too Cynical?
    Anmol Chaddha, William Julius Wilson, and Sudhir Venkatesh, “In Defense of The Wire” with Atlas & Dreier's response
    Simon & Burns Q&A with Melvin Williams

    Apr 23: WATCH: #48 “A New Day” & #49 “That’s Got His Own”

    Apr 25: Essay #2 due before class

    WATCH: #50 “Final Grades” (end season 4)


    Apr 29: WATCH: #51 “More with Less” & #52 “Unconfirmed Reports”

    READ: Carlo Rotella, "The Case against Kojak Liberalism"
    Erlend Lavik, "Style in The Wire" (video essay)
    Margaret Talbot, "Stealing Life"
    Lawrence Lanahan, “CJR: Secrets of the City

    Apr 30: WATCH: #53 “Not For Attribution” & #54 “Transitions”

    May 2: WATCH: #55 “React Quotes” & #56 “The Dickensian Aspect”


    May 6: WATCH: #57 “Took” & #58 “Clarifications”

    May 7: WATCH: #59 “Late Editions” & #60 “-30-” (end of series)

    May 9: Wrap-up Discussion

    READ FOR THURSDAY: Amanda Ann Klein, "The Dickensian Aspect"
    Linda Williams, "Mega-Melodrama!"
    Daniel Herbert, "It Is What It Is"
    Michael Suen, "Storytelling & Media in The Wire" parts 1 and 2
    Alan Sepinwall, “David Simon Q&A
    David Simon, “Deleted Scene from The Wire

    May 16: All work must be submitted via Moodle by noon