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all the pieces matter

25 march 2018

I wouldn't be reviewing All the Pieces Matter if I were just a casual fan of The Wire – or, to put it another way, I doubt I'll be reviewing any oral histories of The Sopranos or Boardwalk Empire. I've spent about 90 hours of my life watching The Wire, in one full pass and several incomplete ones. As soon as I heard about Jonathan Abrams' "inside story" of the series, I persuaded my university library to order it for me, and I binge-read the book like a true 21st-century TV fan.

Abrams gathers an amazingly comprehensive set of interviews from participants in The Wire. A few are featured at considerable length, and end up carrying much of the narrative of the book: creators David Simon and Ed Burns, actors Wendell Pierce and Andre Royo, writer George Pelecanos. But true to the ensemble nature of the series, nearly everybody you'd remember gets some sort of say here (producer/actor Robert Castleberry and actor/teacher Robert Chew are deceased, but Abrams was able to interview Reg E. Cathey before Cathey's death earlier this year).

The book is structured chronologically, from the show's conception through each of its five seasons; there is little "what happened to" in the material, though Abrams' interviewees reflect on the subsequent fame and still-growing reception of The Wire.

Abrams' narrative gives a strong sense of the collaborative nature of TV. Well, most people know that TV is collaborative – no matter how invested you are in "auteur" interpretations, no auteur can execute every aspect of a TV show. But the vast scale of The Wire (at that a relatively modest series), and the many complementary crafts that go into it, come across vividly in All the Pieces Matter. Actors talk about acting, and the identification they build with a character. Cinematographers talk about visual style. Casting directors talk about creating an ensemble. Writers talk about story-telling, and the central creative team talks about the challenge of shaping stories told by multiple writers and directors.

And that creative team, David Simon above all, talk about the rhetoric of The Wire. One of my old mentors used to say of literature that "messages are for Western Union" – a now unintelligible metaphor, but appropriately wiry. Simon couldn't agree less. His searing faith, during all five seasons of the series, was that a television series could send a powerful message to America. At the same time, Simon, a self-avowed "progressive pessimist," was pretty sure that the message wouldn't get through. He was right; but he sent it all the same.

Quoting too much from All the Pieces Matter would spoil the fun of reading it. Like The Wire itself, its oral history has a complex texture. Part of the complexity involves the perspective of time. The Wire ran from 2002 to 2008; All the Pieces Matter arrives in 2018. In the intervening decade, the show morphed from cult curiosity into one of a handful of TV's great contributions to American film. The show's reputation is almost entirely retrospective: not many people (relative to big hits like Sex and the City) watched it in its first run, and only two of its episodes were nominated for Emmys. The Wire was Barack Obama's favorite show, true; but it was off the air before Obama became President.

Abrams' interviewees point to DVDs as the key to the series' long-gathering momentum.

It wasn't until after Season Three [2004] when the DVDs came out. All of a sudden, everybody can watch this maddeningly complex show. … People discovered it on DVD because they could mainline it. (writer Richard Price, 261)
David Simon (260) says that he always had the faith that The Wire would find its audience on DVD, and he may indeed have been prescient in that respect. If so, the particular narrative form of the series – slow, novelistic, elaborate, resonant – was a gesture in the direction of a new cinematic experience, one to be undertaken with a free weekend, a stack of discs (later a streaming account), and plenty of snacks.

Long-form TV was not new in the early 2000s. The Sopranos was at its peak, the prestige and popular jewel of HBO's offerings. Six Feet Under started the year before The Wire, and The Shield was its contemporary. Heimat, the great German epic, had aired in the early 1980s, Roots several years before that. In fact, Roots and Heimat were basically ultra-long feature films, and The Sopranos and Six Feet Under examples of the higher soap opera. But they had not exhausted the possibilities of long-form TV.

The Wire turned out something of a hybrid. Each season of its five is a very long film. All are set in the same "built" city, but each is distinctly a separate story. The literary analogue is not the epic novel, but the series of police procedurals. The creators are upfront about the limitations on executing their vision. Never sure that they would be renewed for even a single additional season, they were unable to chart the entire arc of their story from the first episode to the sixtieth. Simon says that he always anticipated ending The Wire with a season about journalism, and he eventually did so in the fifth. But each of the first four seasons ends convincingly enough that The Wire would feel complete if it had stopped there – particularly after the ends of the first and third seasons, when it really did look like nothing further might get made.

Realism and social purpose made it imperative for the creators to be able to kill off their characters, even those with considerable fan appeal – though The Wire needed all the fan appeal it could get. The departure of Idris Elba after the third season entailed a memorable death scene. I'd always supposed that Elba, who has become one of the most bankable veterans of The Wire, had asked out of his contract to pursue movie stardom. But according to Abrams' interviews, Elba was uncomprehending when told that Stringer Bell would die. Why would Simon and Burns do such a thing to their intriguing, ambiguous anti-hero?

But they'd done it before, with the young drug-runner Wallace in Season One. Michael B. Jordan, a young teenager when he played Wallace, was a lot more broken up than Idris Elba would be, and much less confident of any kind of future in acting. This story too has a happy ending (or middle, I guess), as Jordan has recently starred in the transcendent hit Black Panther, and bids fair to become the most popular of all The Wire's alumni. Such stardom was far in Jordan's future at the time, though. Simon and Burns had to delicately balance their dramatic interests against the need to keep "expendable" series regulars loyal to the show.

Killing off your main attractions has become almost SOP in major drama series since The Wire. The texture of series like Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones depends on the continual demise of characters that fans have become attached to. Short-lived character arcs are pretty much the raison d'être of The Walking Dead. But not so long ago, such disappearances were rarer, unless of course a star wanted off to pursue other options. The Shield, contemporary with The Wire and often compared to it, managed to keep its core cast intact – with a single exception – for its entire 89-episode run. And characters on The Shield saw more lethal danger nightly than characters from The Wire might be exposed to in several seasons.

The contrast to The Shield initially made some of The Wire team wonder if they could compete. "That shit is a hundred miles an hour," says Andre Royo, who played Bubbles. "There's action every five minutes on The Shield. We're like, 'This show [The Wire] is going to suck. They're not going to pick it up. Hope everybody didn't spend their money" (47). In addition to the slow pace, another factor was color. The largely black cast of the first season of The Wire cost it viewers, by most observers' assessments; but it was also a selling point. Royo muses "HBO was like, 'We're not going to be a network where we're going to have all these shows about white people" (47). Some of the African-American stars of the series, like Royo, Elba, and Michael K. Williams (who played Omar), were bemused when the creators rolled out a Season Two storyline that focussed on Polish Catholic dock workers. Simon preached (and ultimately rewarded) their patience. And the integration of villainy on The Wire served a political purpose. It was an anti-racist series unafraid to show deeply evil black villains, but it also needed to show that black people have no monopoly on villainy.

Ultimately, says Andre Royo,

The Wire became that show where there was a hierarchy. If you say you like The Wire, that means you like reading books. That means you give a fuck about the human race. (219)
I like that way of looking at it.

Abrams, Jonathan. All the Pieces Matter: The inside story of The Wire. New York: Crown Archetype [Penguin Random House], 2018.