Note: This is an oral history of how The Wire got made. You should only read this if you have seen The Wire in its entirety. The spoilers in this review concern the show, not the book.
I loved Abrams’ oral histories for Grantland but it might have been partially due to the fact that they were some of the first oral histories I had ever read. I feel like Abrams’ strength with those was getting the story of a very specific event (or a series of events) from the mouths of those involved and presenting it in such a way that it was compelling (sometimes even tense) even if I specifically didn’t care about that particular event (or series of events). I’m not sure the process works as well with a 60 hour program, which could use a little more criticism than what is usually provided by oral histories. This is a work of art we’re talking about, not an event.
The book is very effective at showing us the human side of the making of the show – I learned so much more than I knew about the individual actors and what they went through making the show and I learned a lot more about the actual process of making of the show than I knew (and I’ve watched the DVD commentary tracks for all but season 5, I believe). If you are looking for a behind-the-scenes history of The Wire then you will not be disappointed.
Where the book fails, I think, is in examining the show as art. Abrams’ assumes its greatness as do almost all the participants. (The one person who doesn’t is Ed Burns, which is fascinating and could make for a very interesting story.) I have seen the show multiple times. I know it is mostly great. But I also value different perspectives and would be far more interested in a look at the show that delves a little more deeply into why it wasn’t popular in its day, or why/how it got some bad reviews, and stuff like that. (Nearly) Everybody here is in love with the show, and that makes sense, but I would have liked a little more outside perspective.
This is particularly true when it comes to Season 5. To the extent that they discuss the massive problem that is Season 5, they discuss it in terms of Simon being accused of being bitter about his former employer. As someone who has watched that season twice, I find that a very odd thing to focus on. I found the media angle to be more compelling than the other part, namely when the show Jumped the Shark by having McNulty invent a serial killer. While Ed Burns was off location scouting for Generation Kill apparently his dictum that everything had to be real was totally forgotten. This is a huge flaw and makes it hard to recommend the fifth season to everyone. But it is only ever briefly mentioned; it’s like he didn’t ask anyone about it. Why not?
I enjoyed this. I enjoyed learning about the show’s evolution and I especially enjoyed learning about casting decisions and how the experience affected the actors. But something is missing and that is a critical engagement with the actual show.