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The Wire and American Society

By Allison Pierce

Michelle Engert

The American Studies Program is pleased to have Michelle Engert teaching AMST-296, The Wire and American Society, for the spring 2014 semester.

Engert, who now works for the Defender Services Office in Washington, D.C., was an assistant federal public defender, or a lawyer assigned to defend indigent people charged with federal crimes when they cannot afford one, in New Mexico and later Baltimore, Maryland. The Wire, an HBO show that aired in 2002, explores crime and the legal system in Baltimore.

The city of Baltimore, she says, is unique because it has not been able to get a handle on crime without the federal government’s help. Many of the crimes normally prosecuted locally in other cities are done so on the federal level due to a lack of local resources. The Wire “tells the truth about people who got left behind in urban America,” says Engert. Many of the stories used in the show were collected around the late 1980s but are still relevant today; the same problems arise under different names. Engert says The Wire is “an accurate portrayal of Baltimore.”

The Wire and American Society has been a class offered at AU for a few years, and Engert has also taught the class to American studies students in Germany, where such programs of study are popular. German students were less familiar with the kinds of events depicted in the show, and they found the show a valuable tool to learn about parts of the U.S. legal system. Classes on the show are being taught at other schools across the country, including at Harvard and Middlebury College.

The show can be to teach a variety of different subjects; American Studies, of course, but also law, sociology, and more. Part of this, Engert says, is due to the narratives. “The fictional characters pull you in—they make you care about things we normally look away from,” she says. The Wire attaches people, names, and faces to more theoretical topics discussed in classes. Engert believes the show is relevant in places other than the D.C. area. “There are a lot of Baltimores in America,” she says.