All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of the Wire by Jonathan Abrams

Review published on June 10, 2018.

When Casting Director, Alexa L. Fogel, told HBO Chairman and CEO, Chris Albrecht that they wanted to hire an English actor in the part of Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, she remembers his reply was, “You, better be right.” Albrecht says this was before it was de rigueur to employ British actors for American shows. Ultimately, What a choice! Dominic West was perfect for the part.

If you see an episode of Ironside from the sixties you’ll be amazed at spartan junkie palace – not so much as a speck of dirt let alone a needle or a spaced out junkie. Yet, realism took decades to arrive on the small screen and HBO helped. By the time we get to The Wire nothing is sugar-coated. I was a bit dazed by the pace and complex structure of the first episode but I was hooked on what I saw as noir TV. The Wire was the TV novel; over five seasons the scope and ambition of the show dazzled. This was exciting action TV drama that explored the socio-political background with all the force of The Boys from the Blackstuff in Britain twenty years earlier. The main character was the city of Baltimore itself, the run down streets and the people, the governance and the cultural life, the industrial decline, the drugs and the inevitable violence. Yet The Wire made us see the world from different perspectives and appreciate what it was like to be poor with limited choices in the city. I suspect like a lot of people, including Barack Obama apparently, my favourite character was Omar Little. Plot spoiler here; when we meet Omar he is a lone gangster, part street product, part psychopath and all trouble. As the series progresses we begin to see how smart he is, his life could have been different, he wants to change, and just when the chance of a better life comes along a random act ends his life. Similarly, when Stringer Bell, the too clever gangster who wants to make everything a business gets killed you feel it. These are real people and this is tragedy. Incidentally, I never realised until after the first season that Bell, aka Idris Elba, was British too (wonder what happened to him?).

In 2009, Chris Grayling made a facile comparison between Manchester and Baltimore – a crass and ill thought out analysis, but it demonstrates the penetration of the show into British life. It’s a show that is probably too dark, too raw for a lot of people but it has permeated our culture. The Wire made TV all over the world step up its game. What Jonathan Abrams has done in All the Pieces Matter is interview the people involved in the making of The Wire from inception to final episode. He has edited the interviews and cut them together to produce a cogent oral history of the show. There are brief introductory notes to each chapter but mostly it’s the cleverly spliced interviews that tell the story.

It all started when a reporter from the Baltimore Sun, David Simon and a city cop, Ed Burns got together. Way back in 1987, Simon wrote a piece for the paper entitled Easy Money: Anatomy of a Drugs Empire, about Melvin Williams, (a role model for Stringer Bell). In ’91, Simon wrote Homicide: A Year in the Killing Streets, (including Interviews conducted in a shooting gallery, while a prostitute worked in the background and people were taking drugs). The Corner: A Year in the Life an Inner-City Neighborhood followed in ’97. It was Barry Levinson who bought Homicide to NBC series in ’94, and The Wire was green light in 2001.

The contributors to this book are the actors, the productions staff, the executives, the writers and anyone connected to the show. The original idea was to make the city the focus of the story, to look at the broken society in a way that was more incisive than any drama before. As we read the interviews we get an idea of the way things came together; Wendell Pierce William ‘Bunk’ Moreland was the first actor recruited, (photoplates remind us of the key players). HBO were keen on Ray Winstone for the part of McNulty – no disrespect to Winstone but thank goodness that didn’t come off. We see how the relationships developed between the people involved in the project. Abrams says they all talk about staying in touch, this show meant something to special to the cast but there are divisions here too. Idris Elba was out of money and on his way home until this last audition panned out.

For many of the actors being in this show was closer to their own experience. Sonja Sohn, Det. Shikima ‘Kima’ Greggs says she grew up in one of the “undeserved areas” depicted in The Wire. It coloured her attitude to playing a police officer. Anyone who has watched the pilot knows that it’s complex and it appears that the some of actors were equally perplexed when shooting but believed enough to be led. Dominic West reveals that he needed accent coaching for the whole five seasons.

The Wire brought on board some great writers; George P. Pelecanos, Richard Price and Dennis Lehane. Season one was about the criminals and the wire tap, season two changed tack and that was an issue for some of the actors as Michael K Williams Omar Little reveals. The focus became the death of the blue collar working class, mostly white, it was about deindustrialization. It wasn’t easy to grasp that the end product would link everything. Season three tackled the politics of City Hall and the school system and the decline of a fictional version of the Baltimore Sun were covered in seasons four and five (the final season).

Michael K Williams, Omar, took a young woman fresh out of jail, loaded with issues and got her an acting job, it changed her life. The Wire was alive to the changing face of the city. Pelecanos talks about old school gangsters and the new breed with no boundaries. Stories asked questions about; when you have never been part of society where do your values come from?

I wasn’t sure about this book before I started it but I came to appreciate that like The Wire itself this is an engaging, even engrossing, meticulously collated and put together. The clever thing is allowing people to speak for themselves, which gives the material an immediacy and a real insight into the show. It’s not a critique and it doesn’t ask why people love the show but I can’t think that any fan wouldn’t enjoy this book. For those who don’t know why The Wire was so good, so important for TV read this to get some idea. If any TV series deserves to be written about it’s The Wire.

All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire by Jonathan Abrams
No Exit Press 9780857302748 pbk May 2018

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