'So what's your major?' 'HBO'

The Baltimore Sun

And you thought it was expensive watching The Wire on Comcast. Try tuning in via $42,000 a year at Middlebury College, which began offering a course on the late, great HBO series this semester.

The Middlebury price includes a whole year's education at the esteemed Vermont college but, alas, no access to the Food Network. A better bargain can be had at UC Berkeley, which charges $7,000 (in state) and just launched a Wire course of its own.

"As far as I know, [Berkeley's Linda Williams] and I are the first to do it and certainly the first to teach more or less the entire series," said Jason Mittell, associate professor of American Studies and Film & Media Culture at Middlebury.

This is not, however, the first time college courses have been built around a single television series.

"I'm pretty sure there was a class somewhere on Buffy," Mittell said. "I know there were classes on The Simpsons. But they tend to be a little less serious, tend to be at more - how do I put this? - lightweight schools. These are not gut classes."

Indeed, in addition to watching the 60-hour HBO series, Mittell's students are reading anthropological studies of drug gangs and doing research projects on the decline of Baltimore's industrial economy. At Berkeley, Williams' class is reading Greek tragedy, Dickens' Bleak House and parts of Balzac's The Human Comedy.

Williams herself did a scholarly study of the use of a single word in a particular scene in season one, episode four. It's a word that might land a high schooler in detention if he scrawled it on a bathroom wall.

"I did a very close analysis of the so-called [BLEEP] scene when Bunk and McNulty analyze a crime scene," Williams said. "They're just talking with one another, moving, measuring. ... Only the word [BLEEP] is used but it is used in a million different ways. They say [BLEEP]. They say [BLEEPer BLEEPer]. They say [BLEEP, BLEEP, BLEEPety, BLEEP]. Sometimes it's regret for the loss of the woman. Sometimes it's anger that police got it wrong. Sometimes it's, 'Wow! Eureka!' But it's all through this one word. I'm hoping students will be able to find scenes that are that rich."

Senate potty-talk

Organized labor has failed, for a second year in a row in Annapolis, to add a whiff of Thomas Jefferson to a realm more closely associated with Mr. Whipple.

The Senate Finance Committee killed a bill last week meant to democratize the construction-site bathroom scene, where all johns are not created equal.

Laborers usually just have access to port-o-potties with no means for washing up, even when there's a flush toilet for higher-ups in a construction trailer. If the on-site engineers and office staff get to flush, the bill said, guys swinging hammers should have that right, too.

A similar bill failed last year. But Sen. Katherine Klausmeier sponsored it again this year at the behest of the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union, Local 486.

"It's like we don't count 'cause we're construction workers," said Bud Schuler, business agent for the union.

The dream was construction workers with keys to the executive washroom. The fallback was port-o-lets with Purell dispensers. But even that plan went down the toilet, in part because the economy's there.

"If we were in flush times" it might be a different story, said Bruce Bereano, lobbyist for the Associated Utility Contractors, which opposed the bill

Said Sen. Barry Glassman, who voted against it: "In the middle of what is growing to be a Great Depression, I didn't think we should spend a lot of time worrying about potty parity."

The bill offered legislative researchers the rare opportunity to quote "Don's Johns" and "Potty Queen" in a fiscal note. Portable potties with flush toilets and hand-washing facilities rent for about $275 a month, it said, compared with $100 for frills-free privies.

Connect the dots

Shock Trauma surgeon Carnell Cooper was recognized last week as a "CNN Hero." The network lauded Cooper for an intervention program intended to steer kids away from the violent street culture that often lands them on his OR table. ... Hari Sevugan, communications director for Martin O'Malley's gubernatorial campaign in 2006, has a new job: national press secretary and deputy communications director for the Democratic National Committee. The job seems to involve blast-e-mailing lots of GOP-skewering messages, since my in box gets more from him now than when he was working for the future Gov. ... After a mysterious five-week absence, Prince of Darkness Joe Steffen got back to blogging last week. He wasn't the only Maryland political figure bitten by the blogger bug. Sen. Barbara Mikulski was a guest blogger on the AARP's Web site, posting a bit about expanding national service programs.

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