“... and all the pieces matter.”
This is the written quote that appears on-screen to start the sixth episode of Season 1 of “The Wire,” the HBO series widely regarded as one of the finest since the invention of television – if not the finest.
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It neatly sums up the success of the show itself: “The Wire” took a somewhat fortuitous, circuitous path to legendary status over its five seasons, and in the 10 years since the finale. It also describes how Charlotte-based sports journalist Jonathan Abrams was able to write “All the Pieces Matter,” an oral history of the show. (The book came out in February and debuted at No. 6 on the New York Times’ Best Sellers list of combined print and e-book nonfiction.)
Abrams – at 34, a veteran reporter (as well as a husband and father of two) who has covered the NBA for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the late, great sports and culture website Grantland – relocated from southern California to south Charlotte in October 2015, around the time Grantland folded. He was scooped up by rival site Bleacher Report.
“All the Pieces Matter” is his second book. His first, “Boys Among Men,” looked at basketball prodigies who went straight from high school to the NBA; it became a bestseller after being published two years ago.
His relationship with “The Wire” began in 2006, when he finally gave in to a friend who’d been badgering him about how gripping it was. He started watching at the beginning of the show’s fourth season. (A viewer could do this without getting totally lost because the plot of each of the Baltimore-set series’ five seasons tackled a distinct societal theme: the war on drugs, industrialization, city politics, education and the media.)
Abrams watched Seasons 4 and 5 in real-time, then went back and binged Seasons 1, 2 and 3. Then he re-watched all five seasons over again. Eventually, he dove back in a third time.
“The first thing that drew me into that show was just seeing such a diverse range of black characters,” Abrams says. “That was just special for me to watch. You see black people not just being the drug dealers, but also in the police department, and also as the mayor – and these characters have so many different emotions and complexities. And then the deeper meaning of the show sets in. It’s a critique on all these institutions that that people think have their best interests in mind when sometimes they don’t. On top of all that, it works so well as entertainment, too.
“Generally, if I see something once, I don’t want to make the time investment to watch it again. But you pick up new things every time you watch it. I’m sure I could fire it up again and pick up different things – that’s how densely layered the show is.”
(For those who haven’t seen it, Abrams says: “I don’t care how long it takes, just watch it. Even if it takes three, four, five years, watch it. Then get back to me. You’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah, I understand now.’ ”)
It was this intense passion for “The Wire” that drove him to spend months trying to convince his publisher to let him step away from the sports world to write a book about a TV show ... right? Nope. That’s not the way it got off the ground at all.
Here’s a brief oral history of Abrams’ oral history of “The Wire”:
▪ “I really wish I could take credit for it, but it was my literary agent’s idea. He pitched it to me when we were tossing around ideas to pursue after the first book. I don’t think we had talked about the show before. He probably didn’t know that I had such a deep interest in the show. But he knew that I had done oral histories at Grantland (one of his most memorable is here), so he probably thought that I would be good for it even if I didn’t have such a deep respect for the show. The fact that I did just was a perfect marriage.
“Once he suggested it, immediately I said yes. I mean, I just thought it was such a great idea because the show is still relevant today. We’re still talking about the war on drugs, we’re still critiquing media or looking at politics in different ways. And I think until these institutions get fixed or get critiqued more seriously, ‘The Wire’ is going to continue to be relevant.”
▪ “The first thing we needed to do was get David Simon to say OK to it.” (David Simon is the creator and head writer of “The Wire,” who also gave HBO “The Corner,” in 2000, and current series “The Deuce.”) “So I wrote him this impassioned email about why I thought the show was groundbreaking and still relevant – to be honest, it was probably stuff he’s heard a bunch of times before. But I said all that, and why I thought I’d be a great reporter to do it, and his one-sentence reply was something like, ‘You can do whatever you want to do, I don’t care.’
“Oh man, I was jumping so high, because everything I had heard about him was that he’s kind of this curmudgeon-type guy. So that was the best response I could have ever hoped for. Without him, it would have been impossible. I knew that when I reached out to people involved with the show, the first thing a lot of them would do is check in with him and say, ‘Hey, do you know about this? Are you OK with it? Are you participating in it?’ And if he would have said, ‘No, I don’t know who this guy is,’ I wouldn’t have made much headway.”
▪ “After that, the first thing I did was print every story I could find about ‘The Wire,’ and I started to make a list of people I wanted to try and interview. I contacted HBO’s head PR guy and gave him a heads-up, to see if they could help with interviews. David Simon’s assistant, Rena (Rexrode), helped with the writers who David worked with – like Ed Burns, the co-creator, and George Pelecanos – and with Nina Noble, the executive producer. For the actors, Alexa Fogel, the casting director, was really, really helpful. She landed a lot of these people their biggest roles, so they feel in debt to her.
“Then once I started getting some of these people, it was almost a snowball effect. Somebody would say no to me at the beginning, when I didn’t have a lot of people, and then later in the process I’d come back to their publicist and say, ‘Look, I have all these others, don’t they want to be a part of it?’ And then they would say yes.” (Abrams would go on to conduct in-depth interviews with Simon and Burns, stars such as Idris Elba and Dominic West, writers Richard Price and Dennis Lehane, directors, cinematographers, researchers and more. Abrams estimates that his transcriptions, from more than 200 interviews, filled in excess of 1,500 pages.)
▪ The easiest “yes” came – perhaps surprisingly – from Michael B. Jordan, who since “The Wire” has gone on to superstardom, thanks to big roles in films like “Creed” and “Black Panther.” Abrams’ old Grantland boss, Bill Simmons, happened to be friends with Jordan’s manager, “so Michael B. Jordan was actually one of the first interviews that I did for the book. That got me off to a good start and made me confident about it all coming together.”
▪ One memorable “no” came from Hassan Johnson, the actor who played Wee-Bey Brice. He asked to be paid $700 for the interview; Abrams declined. “Listen, I can understand wanting to be compensated for your time – even though that’s a pretty high rate – but my thing was, like, if I pay that once, then how many other times would people ask to be paid? Then I wouldn’t have anywhere to live. Two hundred times $700 is ... a lot.”
▪ And then there was that time Abrams almost missed what would be his one and only chance to interview David Simon. “It had taken months to be able to arrange to interview him, so I was pretty deep into the process by the time, like, it finally came together. He had to go give a talk at Harvard, and he was working on ‘The Deuce’ in New York, so he was taking a train from New York to Boston and he said I could go with him on that train ride.
“I had lived in New York for five years, back when I worked at the Times, so I know the subway stations, I know Penn Station fine. I flew in and stayed on the Upper West Side, and it’s supposed to be just like three express stops to Penn Station from up there. But there was some type of delay, or the trains weren’t running right, and I was this close to missing the train to Boston. I swear they must have shut the doors maybe 20 seconds after I had gotten on. When I found him on the train and introduced myself, I was probably a sweating, out-of-breath mess. And he could see it, that I was flustered. He was like, ‘Calm down. Just take a breath.’I would still be kicking myself if I’d missed that train.”
▪ “I actually wanted the title of the book to be another famous quote from the show: ‘It’s all in the game.’ That was the working title for a long time. Then the publisher came back and was like, ‘No, you just wrote a book on basketball. People may be confused.’ So we changed it.”
▪ “It was all-consuming, but in a fun way. Because it wasn’t like work. I had done sportswriting for so long, but this was something completely different, and it was fun to me to be able to talk to these people and listen to what their reflections on the show are. It’s been almost 10 years since the finale of the show, so I think it was a really good time to gain people’s perspectives. Enough time has settled in for them to have a true appreciation of what the show meant to them.”