Last month, dear Pajiba readers, y’all freaked me the fuck out. Do you remember this, our bracket for the Best TV Show of the 21st Century? Do you know how just barely The Wire eked out its rightful win?
I WAS SHOOK.
Look, I enjoyed Parks and Recreation. I liked it a lot! It was charming and kind and a wonderful reminder of the inherent goodness of people and the importance of friendship! It gave us this!
But I’m sorry — better than The Wire? Nah.
More pleasant, yes. But The Wire, the HBO show that never received the attention or accolades it deserved during its original five-season run about the pervasive drug trade, industrial collapse, and overall capitalist and bureaucratic failures decaying Baltimore, Md., grips your heart and your spirit and crushes them to within an inch of their lives and then gives you a slight sliver of hope that maybe the world can be a better place — and that maybe you can do something about it — and even though that hope is ephemeral and doomed, it’s also beautiful and necessary.
I’ve been rewatching The Wire lately, and every so often I’ll turn to my partner and declare a random character my favorite character, because the writing is so strong that anyone can be a worthwhile candidate. Bodie, a soldier until the end, whip-smart and loyal and never without a comeback. Prez, immensely flawed and problematic as hell, but so winning in his partnership with Lester and so heart-breaking in his final interactions with Dukie, whose wasted childhood was even more heartbreaking. Slim Charles, who shrugged off murder but had no problem redeeming the death of the East Side kingpin Prop Joe. Bunk (the forever wonderful Wendell Pierce) and Kima and Daniels and Rhonda and Wee-Bey and Beadie Russell and Cutty and Michael and Randy and Carver and Snoop and D’Angelo and Gus and Sobotka and even Vondas. I could keep going. (But never the Greek or Herc or Carcetti or Clay Davis or Valchek; they are the worst.)
What inspired my obsessive plunging back into The Wire was not only its rightful win as the Pajiba Best Show of the 21st Century — AN IMMENSE ACHIEVEMENT — but also that I finished reading the excellent oral history of the show, Jonathan Abrams’s All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire. It’s 326 pages of interviews with damn near everyone, including show co-creators David Simon and Ed Burns, writer George Pelecanos, and cast members Wood Harris, Idris Elba, Andre Royo, Michael B. Jordan, Clarke Peters, and more. It is full of insightful stories about how the show came together, Simon’s constant battles with HBO management, and the actors’ thoughts on working together and in Baltimore, and everyone who has ever enjoyed a moment of The Wire should read it.
Need proof? I’ve collected some of what I think are the most interesting, most emotional, or most FUCK YES moments from the oral history here. Let’s get into it.
The cast knew the show they were making was special, and got along like gangbusters
+ Clarke Peters (Det. Lester Freamon) had a house in Baltimore in which he rented rooms to other cast members, including the recently deceased Reg E. Cathey. According to Peters, “all we had was a radio, guitar, some painting, a couple of bottles of wine, a fireplace, and conversation,” and the home became sort of a bohemian gathering place for everyone to discuss literature, paint, and sit around and talk. Based on this story, I honestly am not sure if Clarke Peters and Lester Freamon were separate people?
+ Cathey and many of the cast members speak at length about how unique The Wire was for its heavily black cast, in which not everyone had to be a “good role model” because there wasn’t only one black character in a majority-white show. “In terms of Norman, to play a smart man, a man with brains, a man who drank and smoked and made mistakes and told truth to power because he just didn’t give a fuck anymore—it was so much fun.”
+ Also fun: that infamous Clay Davis line, delivered by Isiah Whitlock Jr. Actress Marlyne Barrett wonders, “How long are you going to do it for? How long is it going to last? I just need to know rhythmically. Is it going to be a sheeeeeeeee-it? Is it going to stop?”
+ Actor Robert Wisdom, who played Bunny Colvin, organized a portrait of all the black actors on the show during the third season, hoping to capture something that “will never happen again.” “Everybody from Idris to Wood Harris showed up.”
+ Speaking of Idris Elba and Wood Harris — the latter compares their chemistry as Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale with that of Robert Redford and Paul Newman: “You won’t see that again unless you see us again.” Not wrong.
+ Michael K. Williams, perennial fan favorite Omar Little, describes seeing Felicia “Snoop” Pearson for the first time and knowing “she was the quintessential Baltimore.” Pearson, who served time for second-degree murder, grew very close to Williams and has this great quote in the book about first meeting Simon, Burns, and producer Nina Kostroff Noble: “I ain’t never been around all these white people. … I was kind of nervous.”
Working in Baltimore was its own thing
+ Michael B. Jordan and J. D. Williams both grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and discuss how their childhoods weren’t really so different from what they saw in Baltimore. Jordan offers up this wisdom: “You’ve been in one hood, you’ve kind of sort been in them all. Some are different than others, but for the most part, poverty is poverty.”
+ The Hamsterdam-focused narrative of season three sees Bunny Colvin trying to designate specific drug zones in the Western District as a way to bring back normalcy for everyday citizens whose corners and communities have been overrun by the game. That idea is reiterated by staff writer Chris Collins, who shares a story about shooting on a block of abandoned row houses and seeing one man tidying up his home: “He just started sweeping the doorstep. That guy is just hope right there. There’s a guy that’s living in the middle of nowhere. He’s taking time out of his day to come out and sweep his front stoop when every single house around is abandoned. It was a powerful image for me, that this guy did not give up.”
Goddamn, Mark Wahlberg, really?
+ Andre Royo, who played the drug addict Bubbles (who finally climbed those stairs!), tells a story about how some Hollywood executives he met assumed that many of The Wire cast actually were drug users and drug dealers — implicitly saying that they didn’t believe they were real actors.
Patronizing, right? And aren’t you totally not surprised that Mark Wahlberg was one of those people? As Royo tells it: “I saw him at an HBO party sometime. He’s like, ‘You’re doing a good job. Don’t fuck up. Don’t fall back on that shit.’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about, man? I’m from the Bronx.’ ‘Shit, my bad.’” YES, MARKY MARK, YOUR BAD.
The legacy of the show lingers for cast and crew
+ There is some irony to the very concept of the show, says actress Deirdre Lovejoy, who played assistant state’s attorney Rhonda Pearlman and who heard from a district attorney she trailed during the show’s run that “every Sunday night in Baltimore, for three and a half years, the wiretaps would all go dead, and it is because all of the wiretapped people were watching The Wire.”
+ Also ironic, but in a more upsetting way, is an anecdote from J. D. Williams, who played Bodie: “People are like, ‘You look so familiar.’ Police who don’t get it right away always think they’ve arrested me. I have to convince police all the time that they have not arrested me.”
+ If the show had continued, Burns and Simon would have wanted to do two more seasons: one about police corruption (which was exhibited by many characters throughout the run of the series, and has been more sharply in focus in real life since the Baltimore riots after the death of Freddie Gray) and one about immigration (in the past few years, there has been increasing Central American immigration into the city, which has led to ICE raiding certain neighborhoods).
But the battle with HBO was so constant that Simon, Burns, and the other producers considered the fourth and fifth seasons, which Simon successfully argued for after HBO effectively canceled the show after the third season, the best deal they could get.
Just miscellaneous weird shit!
+ Tom Waits wanted to see what the show that was using his song “Way Down in the Hole” was about and requested VHS screeners of episodes. But as producer Karen Thorson shared, after Waits received the tapes, they had to wait for his wife to set up the VCR, because he didn’t know how to do it. This has been your very unsurprising Tom-Waits-doesn’t-do-technology story.
+ The fake penis given to James P. J. Ransone’s Ziggy character didn’t match his skintone and the difference was noticeable on camera, causing numerous touch-ups from “sweet middle-aged women … would have to come over and shade in my fake penis … they’d have to come over and airbrush it,” Ransone shares about his experience with the makeup crew. Between that and the pet duck with the diamond collar and the saucers of whiskey, yeah, Ziggy was a fucking trip.
+ Wisdom puts its most plainly: “There are two kinds of people in the world. People who have seen The Wire and people who haven’t seen The Wire.” At this point, there’s no reason to be latter.