REVIEW: All The Pieces Matter by Jonathan Abrams

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Read this book for: fans of The Wire (TV Series), interest in TV behind-the-scenes, wanting to learn about how true crime becomes fiction

Quick Review: A worthwhile read for people who love The Wire, this book will take you through the way this series came to be, from the perspectives of a huge number of cast, crew and executives.

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The definitive oral history of the iconic and beloved TV show The Wire, as told by the actors, writers, directors, and others involved in its creation.

Since its final episode aired in 2008, HBO’s acclaimed crime drama The Wire has only become more popular and influential. The issues it tackled, from the failures of the drug war and criminal justice system to systemic bias in law enforcement and other social institutions, have become more urgent and central to the national conversation. The show’s actors, such as Idris Elba, Dominic West, and Michael B. Jordan, have gone on to become major stars. Its creators and writers, including David Simon and Richard Price, have developed dedicated cult followings of their own. Universities use the show to teach everything from film theory to criminal justice to sociology. Politicians and activists reference it when discussing policy. When critics compile lists of the Greatest TV Shows of All Time, The Wire routinely takes the top spot. It is arguably one of the great works of art America has produced in the 20th century.

But while there has been a great deal of critical analysis of the show and its themes, until now there has never been a definitive, behind-the-scenes take on how it came to be made. With unparalleled access to all the key actors and writers involved in its creation, Jonathan Abrams tells the astonishing, compelling, and complete account of The Wire, from its inception and creation through its end and powerful legacy.

ALL THE PIECES MATTER: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE WIRE is billed as an ‘oral history’ of the HBO television show, The Wire. This is a bit of a different read for this blog — usually we review books about crime, while this is a book about a television show about crime. However, The Wire has a strong relationship with reality — it was created by a crime reporter and a veteran police officer (who later taught in a middle school much like the one later featured in the show). We picked it up because we were interested to learn about how the real problems of Baltimore became a highly respected fictional television show.

This should go without saying, but you absolutely must have seen The Wire in order to pick up this book. Abrams jumps right in, assuming that all the details of the show are fresh in your mind, as the people who talk about the show were so intimately involved that they don’t really provide any background, jumping straight into the topics with enthusiasm.

The format of this book is one I have never really encountered before. It’s literally just a series of snippets from interviews and conversations with people involved in the show, loosely and cleverly strung together along a general thread. The way that the topics shift is quite natural; Abrams has done a great job of selecting pieces that work well together — so much so that the effect is like reading the transcript of a long panel discussion involving twenty-plus people.

That style makes it feel very intimate – as though you are sitting in on a conversation with the people involved in the creation of the show. However, it does mean that the book lacks a real structure. The book is laid out roughly along the lines of each of the seasons, with a section on the end that briefly touches on how race was portrayed so differently in the series. I would have loved a few more organized details about how certain moments were created, why certain decisions were made, and a stronger link for some of the conversations to parts of the show for those readers who have not seen it in a few years.

That is not to say that the conversational style does bring out some interesting stories, anecdotes, and the feelings of the people who created it about the show. The overall impression you are left with is a show created with care and heart, and the cast, crew, and others involved are justifiably proud that during and after its run, it did an excellent job of portraying the real societal and institutional problems that exist in the system.

As an oral history, ALL THE PIECES MATTER is an interesting addition to The Wire fans’ reading list — you will likely find out things you never knew about your favourite show. More than anything, it made me want to go back and rewatch all five seasons with these new insights in mind!

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