It turns out I should have asked Robert Wisdom for stock tips or lotto numbers when I interviewed him three years ago, since the man apparently has an uncanny ability to predict the future.
Back in September 2006, during our interview leading up to the fourth season of The Wire, I asked him about the show’s struggles to attract a wider audience. He likened the show to the Metro section of the newspaper and then asked the question: “Who reads the Metro section of the newspaper?”
He added, “Most people toss that away. We read the celebrity pages and barely read editorials. It’s a sign of our times that we’re not plugged in.”
But Wisdom didn’t believe that all hope was lost. Like a great visionary, he believed The Wire would eventually find its audience and that future generations would come to realize the importance of the show, even if it happened after the fact.
“It’s going to be taught in schools and it’s going to go to whole other formats that no other kind of television has ever gone to because people are going to discover it later on,” Wisdom said. “Thank God we have DVDs because people can go back and catch up with it. That’s where this thing is going to live on and on and on. I really see it as like our Illiad and our Odyssey.”
While I hoped Wisdom’s prediction would ultimately come true, it seemed like a pipedream. I couldn’t help but think that his vision wouldn’t come to fruition for decades, if ever. Perhaps our children’s children would study the show, the way college students now study Citizen Kane (a film that was also widely ignored in its own time), but somehow it seemed unlikely that people would wise up anytime soon.
In reality, however, it only took three years.
Harvard, one of the most prestigious colleges in the country, just announced that next year it will be offering a credited course on The Wire.
It’s actually the fourth college to offer a course that focuses on The Wire, but it’s the first one to do it in the manner Wisdom had in mind. UC-Berkeley and Middlebury College both offer a film studies course about the show and Duke offers a literature course that uses the show to look at phenomenology and 21st century visual media. (Even though it’s awesome that they offer the course and it’s incredibly immature and off-topic to say this, being originally from Maryland, I am actually required by law to add: “Fuck Duke.”)
Instead of simply looking at the show from a cinematic perspective, Harvard will actually use The Wire “as a case study for poverty in America.”
“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, than any other media event or scholarly publication, including studies by social scientists,” said Sociology Professor William J. Wilson, who will teach the class.
This is, of course, what David Simon and Ed Burns always hoped to accomplish when they created the show. While it was always mislabeled as a cop drama or a show about drugs, in reality, The Wire was the story about the decay of an American city and the struggles of urban life. Baltimore was always the main character – not McNulty, Stringer Bell or Omar. All of the characters were trapped in this world – some looking for a way out, but most simply trying to find a way to survive.
Like Wisdom said, it was the Metro section of the newspaper, but dramatized to make it more accessible. It shined a light on a real problem we are all facing in this country and managed to do it in a compelling and entertaining way. Of course, by and large, most of you still didn’t watch it. Even now that all five season are on Netflix, many of you continue to rent crap like Confessions of a Shopaholic and Fast and the Furious instead of watching the greatest television show ever made.
But you’re not alone. Even Hollywood missed the point of The Wire. The show never won a single Emmy, though it was twice nominated for “outstanding writing in a drama series” (but never for “outstanding drama series”). And while Emmy winners like Mad Men and The Sopranos are entertaining, I seriously doubt that a Harvard professor will ever claim those shows have “done more to enhance our understanding of the challenges of urban life, and the problems of urban inequality, than any other media event or scholarly publication, including studies by social scientists.”
My lingering resentment towards the general population and Emmy voters aside, I think the fact that Harvard gets the show and plans on using it as a teaching tool is truly amazing. In fact, for the first time in my life, I find myself a bit jealous that I’m not enrolled in Harvard. The concept of this class is that intriguing to me. I’m even considering stealing Matt Damon’s approach to getting into that other prestigious Cambridge institution and working at Harvard as a janitor in hopes that Professor Wilson leaves a complex Wire-related problem on his chalkboard that only I can solve.
If that doesn’t work, then I guess I’ll turn to my backup plan – buying my way into the school. Now, I just need to set up another interview with Wisdom and get him to share those winning lottery numbers …
Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.