Representations of Education in HBO's the Wire, Season 4

By Trier, James | Teacher Education Quarterly, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Representations of Education in HBO's the Wire, Season 4


Trier, James, Teacher Education Quarterly


The Wire is a crime drama that aired for five seasons on the Home Box Office (HBO) cable channel from 2002-2008. The entire series is set in Baltimore, Maryland, and as Kinder (2008) points out, "Each season The Wire shifts focus to a different segment of society: the drug wars, the docks, city politics, education, and the media" (p. 52). The series explores, in Lanahan's (2008) words,

   an increasingly brutal and coarse society through the prism of
   Baltimore, whose postindustrial capitalism has decimated the
   working-class wage and sharply divided the haves and have-nots. The
   city's bloated bureaucracies sustain the inequality. The absence of
   a decent public-school education or meaningful political reform
   leaves an unskilled underclass trapped between a rampant illegal
   drug economy and a vicious "war on drugs." (p. 24)

My main purpose in this article is to introduce season four of The Wire--the "education" season--to readers who have either never seen any of the series, or who have seen some of it but not season four. Specifically, I will attempt to show that season four holds great pedagogical potential for academics in education. (1) First, though, I will present examples of the critical acclaim that The Wire received throughout its run, and I will introduce the backgrounds of the creators and main writers of the series, David Simon and Ed Burns.

The Wire: The Best Show on Television (Ever)

The Wire drew much critical acclaim, being described as "the most aggressively experimental program on television" (Kehr, 2005); as "one of the most demanding and thought-provoking series ever to grace television" (Lowry, 2006); and as "a masterpiece" that is "one of the great achievements in television artistry" (Goodman, 2006). This kind of acclaim is exemplified by Jacob Weisberg (2006), who, in a frequently-cited column, described The Wire as "surely the best TV show ever broadcast in America," adding: "No other program has ever done anything remotely like what this one does, namely to portray the social, political, and economic life of an American city with the scope, observational precision, and moral vision of great literature."

Weisberg's comparison of The Wire to great literature derives from the vision of the series creator, David Simon, who conceived the show as "a visual novel" (Rothkerch, 2002), and this novelistic quality has been remarked on by many who have written about the series, such as Lanahan (2008), who described what Simon was doing with the series as follows:

   Simon was writing a televised novel, and a big one. Innumerable
   subplots came and went, and main characters disappeared from the
   show for several episodes at a time. Nothing ever resolved itself
   in an hour, and there were no good guys or bad guys. All were
   individuals constrained by their institutions, driven to compromise
   between conscience, greed, and ambition. Facets of their characters
   emerged slowly over time. They spoke in the
   sometimes-unintelligible vernaculars of their subcultures. All of
   this made unprecedented demands on viewers and provided immense
   reward to those who stuck around. A righteous anger at the failure
   of our social institutions drives The Wire, but the passionate
   ideas that fuel it are hidden several layers down. (p. 24) (2)

David Simon and Ed Burns are the originating sources of what Lanahan describes as "righteous anger" and "passionate ideas"--and the sources, too, of the deep knowledge and the multilayered experiences that manifest themselves in what Weisberg (2006) described as the realistic portrayal of "the social, political, and economic life of an American city." Simon--the show's creator, producer, and chief writer--grew up in Washington, D.C., attended the University of Maryland, and became a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, where he worked from 1983 until 1995. In the early 1980s, Simon met Ed Burns, who would eventually become his main collaborator on various projects. …

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