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Oral history of ‘The Wire’ provides fans with insights

February 12, 2018

“All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire” (Crown Archetype), by Jonathan Abrams

The now-celebrated television series “The Wire” attracted few viewers and was virtually snubbed by the Emmys during its five-season run that ended a decade ago. Its producers had to fight tooth and nail to keep HBO from prematurely pulling the plug on the show.

Only later, thanks to acclaim from critics, word-of-mouth accolades from fans and its emerging popularity on DVD, did “The Wire” come to be recognized as one of television’s greatest achievements, a gritty drama that belatedly found its audience as it explored some of America’s most intractable issues. It became the subject of classes at Ivy League universities and won praise from President Barack Obama as his favorite show.

Jonathan Abrams recounts the saga of “The Wire” in an oral history that delivers a chronological account of the show’s genesis and its evolution. It’s a book that is sure to delight ardent fans but might seem incomprehensible to readers who are not steeped in the series or its cast of memorable characters.

Abrams, a journalist whose previous book examined the experiences of basketball phenoms who went directly from high school to the NBA, interviewed creators David Simon and Ed Burns, and dozens of actors, producers and writers who shaped the final product.

Simon, a former police reporter for The Baltimore Sun, and Burns, a homicide detective who became a teacher, were perfectly paired to chronicle the despair of Baltimore’s impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods and the failures of the city’s government, schools and media to come to grips with it.

“The Wire” won praise for the authenticity of its writing, acting and production design. But some viewers were put off by the drama’s complexity and how slowly the plot seemed to unfold. It also came to be perceived as a “black” show with the first season’s focus on ghetto drug dealers and police efforts to curb that trade through the use of wiretaps. Ratings improved in Season Two, which homed in on the plight of the largely white dockworkers along the decaying waterfront.

Abrams’ interviews offer insights into the development of the series while sharing anecdotes of bizarre happenings offstage. In one such incident, a real-life robber happened upon the set, saw actors portraying cops and laid down on the ground and gave himself up.

Fans of “The Wire” can spend hours debating the merits of their favorite characters. The book features incisive recollections by all of them, including drug lord Stringer Bell, stick-up man Omar Little, heroin addict and police informant Bubbles Cousins, and detectives Jimmy McNulty, Bunk Moreland and Kima Greggs.

Actors, we learn, were not told in advance when their characters might be eliminated from the series, most likely by gunfire from a rival gang. “We didn’t want the performances to get telegraphed,” said novelist George Pelecanos, a writer-producer for several episodes. The downside was that actors suddenly received a pink slip and were forced to scramble for work.

Among the most memorable characters was Baltimore’s own Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, a diminutive, raspy-voiced killer who had served nearly seven years in prison after being convicted of murder at age 14. Acting offered an opportunity to set a new path, but the transition was not always easy.

Tragedy intruded just prior to the start of shooting Season Three with the sudden death of co-creator Bob Colesberry after complications from heart surgery. The book recounts how the crew, including Colesberry’s wife, producer Karen Thorson, responded to the loss of a beloved colleague. Thorson credits the distraction of her work with helping her to heal.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of “The Wire” was its focus on inner-city problems that have been long ignored or neglected. Abrams writes that Simon never claimed to have the answers. “But a solution will never be found if the problem is not at least presented honestly and discussed openly.”

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