Review by Robert R. Thomas
Aptly titled, Jonathan Abrams’ book demonstrates his premise via an oral history that focuses on the creation of The Wire, a critically acclaimed HBO television series that ran from 2002 to 2008. Abrams’ book is an engaging dialogue script. But this script is a well-edited transcription of recorded interviews rather than a script written by writers to be performed by actors. The author supplies concise, connective narrative tissue as the conversation rolls through the five seasons of The Wire, including the before and after of the creation.
David Simon and Ed Burns are the original co-creators/writers of The Wire. They are wonderful writers, and characters in their own right. Simon is a former Baltimore newspaper reporter and Burns a former Baltimore cop and school teacher. Their connection and commentary is a bit like mixing oil with water and coming up with gold.
While Simon and Burns are the visionary co-creators of The Wire, the co-creators of the HBO production are everyone involved in bringing the project to fruition. Abrams interviewed and recorded all the principals involved, including the HBO executives, then finely wove these interviews into a lengthy conversation between the principals about their collegial creation. Adding celebrated writers like George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane to the writers’ room while seasoning the production liberally with a talented crew of directors, cinematographers, and actors, some professional and some not, results in a stout stew that is The Wire as well as ALL THE PIECES MATTER.
As an avid reader and a writer, I enjoy a good story. But what I relish even more is the backstory. How did this telling come to be? What is the creative process here? In the case of The Wire, Abrams offers all the co-creators their own voices to tell this backstory.
The spine of The Wire is the superb writing, as is evidenced throughout Abrams’ oral history. Some examples:
DOMINIC WEST (DET. JIMMY MCNULTY): “(The Wire) had the depth and scope of a great, epic novel.”
CLARKE PETERS (DET. LESTER FREAMON): “It was more like (Season) Four when it started to feel like more than just a show. That’s when I think we all began to realize that we had been hired to be actors on a mission. The mission was to educate the public to connect the dots, between local government, the economic situation that a city might find itself in, what’s happening with your children in school, and while you might be frustrated about that, the drug situation, the so-called war on drugs, which we know is a complete farce.”
Season Four “is the best season of television that’s ever been made,” according to writer George Pelecanos. The opening scene of the first episode features a striking performance by a non- professional actor, Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, buying a cordless nail gun in a hardware store. Snoop, the character, is an androgynous killer. The purpose of the gun is to reseal the plywood coverings of vacant buildings in which she and her partner Chris Partlow stored bodies. The dialogue between Snoop and the hardware salesman is as priceless as her overall performance in The Wire. It is also one of the very few instances in which an actor was allowed to go off script.
DAVID SIMON (CREATOR): We’d let her be off book. We let her sort of get her own words. But that (scene) was a very specific metaphor about education. I wanted her to say the words of it. I remember going to her and saying, “Look. You’re an incredible presence, and we hired you because you’re an incredible presence and you’re very real, but the question for you now is: Do you want to be a professional actor? Because this is the transition, because I have no doubt that you can be yourself in front of the camera. You’ve been doing it now for three or four episodes. You did well last year, but here’s a moment where I’m going to rely on you to carry a bigger burden on the story, then I need to know that when I send the pages, the pages will prevail and that you’ll find a way to say what’s on the page and make it your own and make it real. That is acting. It’s going to require work and it’s going to require struggle. It’s not going to come naturally. Nothing comes naturally that’s this complicated. It doesn’t mean you don’t have talent. It means this is going to require work”.
FELICIA “SNOOP” PEARSON: At first, I didn’t get it, because that was my second season or whatever. But the writers and the producers was like, “Man, you the first face everybody gonna see. This is a real big deal.” So, I was like, “Word?” Then everybody was like, “Yeah, Snoop. It’s a big deal.” I was still humble, but I was excited. That scene right there, I think that only took us like two hours, and that’s with them setting everything up, every angle or whatever. Took like, let’s say three hours. It was a very fun scene.”
Stephen King said of Snoop: “Perhaps the most terrifying female villain to ever appear in a television series.” Snoop is deadbang street, in her life and her character in The Wire. How she got involved with The Wire is as fantastical as her performance. How the experience truly changed her real street life is but one of many life-altering experiences for many members of the cast and crew. Such personal revelations add to theme of humanity emphasized throughout The Wire and Abrams’ oral history.
GBENGA AKINNAGBE (CHRIS PARTLOW): The fascinating and great thing about The Wire is that it shows you how people become the people they’re going to become, whether that’s good or bad. We get to humanize these people, despite the horrific or great things they do.
Omar Little, portrayed by Michael K. Williams, was another remarkable character, and Barack Obama’s favorite character in the series. The backstory on Omar is equally remarkable.
GEORGE PELECANOS (WRITER/PRODUCER): Donnie [Andrews] was in the writers’ room with us, and he was the model for Omar. The funny thing about that scene where Omar jumps out of the apartment balcony, breaks his leg: Donnie did that, and some stuff on the Internet was, “now they’ve jumped the shark. That could never happen.” We sort of laughed about that, because when Donnie jumped out of that balcony after a shootout, it was off a floor higher than the one Omar jumps out of. Donnie broke his leg, but he walked on to a waiting car, got in it, and sped away.
“(The Wire) never told; it showed,” as Abrams describes the process.
WENDELL PIERCE (DET. WILLIAM “BUNK” MORELAND): It challenged us to think about the material that we were dealing with. It challenged people who watched it. The reason we still are engaged with the show today is because it really expressed the most important role of art, which is the form where we reflect on what our values are, decide what they are and then act on them. It’s where we have the debate of what we believe, where we failed, where we’ve triumphed. That’s what the art is to the community as a whole: a place where you reflect on these issues and say, “This is what we value, and let’s act accordingly.”
CLARKE PETERS (DET. LESTER FREAMON): The Wire promoted a conversation that is still ongoing. It has become a reference point in universities, not only here, but in England as well. It’s a topic to be studied. It was well studied, well researched in being put together. I think we accomplished the mission in that conversation. We opened the conversation, and it is still ongoing.
ANDRE ROYO (REGINALD “BUBBLES” COUSINS): The Wire was the hidden understanding of how a city is destroyed.
METHOD MAN (CALVIN “CHEESE” WAGSTAFF): Each season was consistent with what Baltimore was about. That’s why it helps to have people that are in the communities, policing the communities, writing this stuff, because they understand it and have their fingers on the pulse of what’s going on in these neighborhoods.
DENNIS LEHANE (WRITER): It’s one of the most caustic, scabrous visions of America in decline that’s ever been put on the screen. And it changed TV a bit, rushed its borders a little further than where they’d previously been positioned.
“David Simon,” writes Abrams, “occasionally countered critics of The Wire by saying that the show’s writers illustrated the world they themselves had experienced and inhabited.”
Fittingly, ALL THE PIECES MATTER concludes with David Simon: “Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there’s other arguments to be had.”
The book’s acknowledgments pages underscores the collaborative creation that Abrams’ oral history is, which seems a fine homage to a classic American television series.
If you have a penchant for stunning writing and masterful television production, The Wire delivers, as anyone who has watched it realizes.
If you want to read an engaging account of its backstory, ALL THE PIECES MATTER is a multi-faceted resource and an excellent addition to the overall arc of The Wire.
EVM board member and book reviewer Robert R. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.