Arts & Culture

Course dissects TV program ‘The Wire’

The class encourages students to see and study television as ‘digital literature’

By
Contributing Writer
Friday, February 15, 2013

It is easy to label a class based on a television program as nothing more than a fun fifth course. But Professor of Comparative Literature Peter Saval’s COLT 1440A: “Storytelling in the Wire” deserves a disclaimer: It does not revolve around couches and popcorn. As students in the class said they have discovered, studying literary techniques through analyzing a show can prove to be profound as well as entertaining.

Though “The Wire” ended in 2008, the course has attracted both dedicated fans and those just developing an addiction. The course boasts a required reading list including the full DVD set of the series.

Karen Newman, professor and chair of the department of comparative literature, said this course material is unremarkable in today’s technological age. There was a time when Shakespeare was considered popular culture for the masses, she said, adding that his plays were not even published because they were considered so ephemeral.

Saval has included “The Wire” in previous courses on tragedy, but this semester is his first time teaching a course dedicated entirely to analyzing the show. He said the show is “a great work of art,” and its settings and complex character relations are full of meaning.

“Perhaps ‘The Wire’ is to my generation what Foucault was to the baby boom generation,” he said.

The course requires the same attention to detail necessary for close language analysis of classical literary texts, proving that watching television can be intellectually stimulating, Saval said. The class melds discussion of contemporary social issues, such as deindustrialization, with analysis of literary techniques.

Saval incorporates readings such as Sophocles’ “Antigone” to provide background for the study of urban landscape and its effect on characters. This shows how other texts are used to inform the social phenomena depicted on screen.

Saval said one of the creators of “The Wire” says he “stole” from Greek plays to create his show. It is this amalgamation of classical influences and contemporary issues that makes for such a captivating and intellectual series, Saval said.

While close language analysis is very important in his field, Saval said “The Wire” also confronts viewers with features of human social relations, such as infrastructure and territory. Within the show, there exist many “silent collaborators,” as he called them. The infrastructure of the city, for example, plays a very defined and central role.

The integration of media into the study of literature can be viewed as a natural progression, Saval also said. The comparative literature department has used film and television for many years, Newman said, adding that television can often reflect literary tendencies. For example, the medium of television can use repeated scenes to develop strong contrasts, similar to the way words are used in poems. Flashbacks are another technique common to both novels and television.

These techniques for studying television, particularly “The Wire,” are often as in-depth as those used to study traditional literature. But students in the course said the class is definitely a crowd-pleaser. Some students said they were drawn to the course by the promise of watching television for homework. Others said they were already dedicated fans of the show and were excited about the opportunity to dissect it further.

Daniel Liu ’16, who had not seen the show before enrolling in the class, took the course to fulfill the writing requirement.

“Let’s call it a very Brown class,” he said. “It aligns perfectly with what I expected to find when I came here.” Though Liu predominantly takes courses within the sciences, this course has encouraged him to potentially take another class in the  department in the future, he said.

“Instead of mourning the rise of digital literature,” Liu said, “we should embrace it and study it as a new art form.”