Feb. 13-- It's been 10 years since "The Wire" went off the air at HBO, taking with it the most meticulously structured and realistic storytelling in the history of TV drama. The series was almost canceled too many times to count, but it persevered through five seasons. It was never a hit. But as "The Wire" kept unwinding, it created a universe more akin to an epic Russian novel than a one-hour crime show. For us true believers it's still the best show to ever grace the tube.
Jonathan Abrams is a true believer. Like many "Wire" heads he came to the show late, via DVD. When he started, he couldn't stop. Unlike most fans, however, Abrams is also a master craftsman of oral histories. Primarily a sportswriter, Abrams once turned the infamous "Malice at the Palace," an NBA game that turned into a brawl involving players and fans, into a "Rashomon"-like tapestry of recollections.
With his new book, "All the Pieces Matter" (Crown Archetype, $27), Abrams has written the ultimate "Wire" oral history. He talked to just about everybody, from series architect David Simon and major cast members to crew members and bit players. As the title says, all the pieces matter. (The title comes from a line delivered on the show by the cerebral Baltimore police detective Lester Freamon).
"I think oral histories work best when a good amount of time has passed, so people can really reflect on what that moment meant to them and what happened to them in that moment," he says by phone. "I also think oral histories work best when you have multiple people viewing the same event. There's a capacity for us to think that people see the same event the same way, which isn't the case."
If you've never seen "The Wire," I envy you. You have a world of riches ahead. Simon, who cut his teeth as a city reporter for the Baltimore Sun, used his institutional knowledge and narrative gifts to create an intricate drama of systemic failure. Each season takes on a different Baltimore entity (in order, from seasons one through five: the drug trade, labor unions, city hall, public schools and the newspaper). But there's nothing dry about "The Wire." It's no civics lesson. Simon, his partner Ed Burns (a caustic former police detective), and a Murderers' Row of writers (including Richard Price, George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane), gave us stories and characters built to last.
Meanwhile, some characters that seemed built to last met untimely ends. Abrams is particularly insightful in his conversations with actors whose characters bit the dust. (If you've never seen the show, skip to the next paragraph). The two biggest stars to emerge from "The Wire," Idris Elba (who played drug kingpin Stringer Bell) and Michael B. Jordan (who played the conscience-stricken slinger Wallace), were both killed off. So was Lawrence Gilliard, Jr., whose D'Angelo Barksdale was a focal point of the first season. Even the most resonant character, Michael K. Williams' gay, scar-faced stick-up artist Omar Little, met his maker on "The Wire."
Each acting casualty knew he was working on a special kind of show, which only increased the trauma of being let go. The audience felt it, too. Simon is unapologetic. As they say on the show, it's all in the game.
"You don't write for anybody but the story, for yourself and for your idea of what the story is," Simon tells Abrams. "The moment you start thinking about the audience, and the audience's expectation, you're lost."
Hearing from so many "Wire" players in "All the Pieces Matter" works reminds us of the show's perpetual dance with reality. Burns taught middle school for a while; his experiences became the basis for Season 4. A former Baltimore mayor, Kurt Schmoke, played a city health commissioner on "The Wire." Another mayor, Martin O'Malley, refused a cameo, but he was still a major inspiration for the show's councilman-turned-mayor, Tommy Carcetti (played by Aidan Gillen).
"There's so much of real life that intersects with The Wire that it's almost tough to see where the fiction begins and the real life ends," Abrams says.
"All the Pieces Matter" makes for compulsive reading, whether you're just getting up on "The Wire" or you know every episode by heart. "The Wire" is like a book you pick up and reread every few years. Now that book has the perfect companion.
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