So, I have finished All the Pieces Matter by Jonathan Abram, due out in February. Really, really liked it. (The book is due out in February but in full disclosure I received this eARC from NetGalley for a fair and honest review. Thanks, NetGalley!)
One note for any prospective reader. This is not an introduction to The Wire. Do not read this book unless you have seen the show, preferably to a diagnosable number of repetitions. If you truly love The Wire, you will wallow in the rich detail that Abrams provides, from funny anecdotes to insights on the crafts of writing and acting. Things like Jay Landsman is in the show, but he doesn’t play Jay Landsman. Who the cop funeral was really for. Stuff like that.
To me, though, the truly fascinating parts of the book were about the craft of storytelling. Note, please, that in this case the lead storytellers weren’t guys with MFAs or film degrees, they were a reporter and a cop. And they were brilliant at it. One of my beliefs has always been that artists can come from anywhere. I write fiction and I didn’t get an MFA and lots of people are the same. Nothing against it if that is your path, but people with the ability to make art exist outside of universities.
So one of the things I love most about these HBO shows is that they thrill and delight their audiences without giving them what they want. When newbies complained about the end to The Sopranos, I was like, “no, you have to understand that David Chase is not going to tie this all up in a neat little bow just to make you happy.”
The Wire was the same in many ways. Glacial pacing. Many characters. Authentic-to-sometime-indecipherable dialogue. Things left unexplained. And few, if any, happy endings. This is no Law and Order. There are no good guys and no bad guys. There are human beings. And the beat goes on.
So, I found this quote from David Simon especially enlightening. Imagine having the balls to say this:
The audience is a child. If you ask the audience what they want, they’ll want dessert. They’ll say they want ice cream. They’ll want cake. You ask them what they want the next minute, they’ll say more ice cream, more cake…“You like Omar?” “Yeah, I love Omar. Give me more of Omar.” No, I want to tell you a story, and the characters are going to do what they’re supposed to do in the story, and that’s the job of the writer. That’s the writer’s job. That’s the storyteller’s job. You don’t write for anybody but the story, for yourself and for your idea of what the story is. The moment you start thinking about the audience and the audience’s expectation, you’re lost. You’re just lost. So, you’ve got to just put it out of your mind….
That’s a shocker right there. That’s a neutron bomb of artistic integrity and the courage and arrogance that comes with it. Because the easy way out is to give people what they want. Everybody loves ice cream. It makes people happy. But you decide to give them something new and different that doesn’t taste like anything else they’ve ever eaten and they don’t think they want and in fact would never order, and you say, you will eat this and like it and they do? Now you have created the basis for art…for changing minds and lives, for thrilling people, delighting people, for making a show people write oral histories about.
Remember what Henry Ford said: if I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
So, for aspiring storytellers, I think it’s an instructive lesson. It is hard. It is never going to be easy. The path of least resistance will never get you there. If you want to be average or even good, that’s fine. If you want to bring down the thunder, you can’t play it safe. You take the path of most resistance.
Here’s another piece of incredibly important advice that Ed Burns gave to the young actor playing Michael in Season Four.
Less is more. Remember that for the rest of your life. Anything that you apply. With Michael, especially this character, less is always more. The less you do, the more everybody will feel it. Because we’re so prone to seeing so much. With acting, with life, whatever. We’re so prone to seeing so much more. But when there’s less, the mystery behind it, it leaves people guessing. It feels so much more.
Again, that’s a wow, and that’s from a guy who was a cop and then a middle school teacher. Maybe the best storytelling advice you will ever get and it comes from that guy. This is the true strength of The Wire. You engage an audience but not filling everything in. Reward the audience for paying attention. All the pieces matter. The audience becomes a co-creator. Television has been described as a passive medium, but The Wire is only great when you engage with it and think along with it.
There’s tons more. This was an easy-to-read book with something I found interesting on literally every page. The actors are thoughtful and articulate as is the entire team, right down to the makeup people. For a fan of The Wire, this is a must read, and it might send you back to rewatch the show. Again.