The Wire bible: Examining David Simon's first draft

The 79-page 'bible' for the first season of The Wire appeared online recently. It contains David SImon's outline of what the series would be about and how it would work, brief descriptions of the main characters and a complete scene-by-scene breakdown of the whole season. Simon writes: "The reward for the viewer, who has been lured all this way by a well-constructed police show, is not the simple gratification of hearing the handcuffs click. Instead the conclusion is something that Euripides or O'Neill might recognise: an America, at every level at war with itself."

The synopsis is very close to the final version but there are some significant differences. First of all in length. The series is nine episodes long, four fewer than the show that finally aired. Crucially, the extra episodes were used to slow the pace down, rather than to add more plot.

The Wire - Bible

It's essential reading if you're a fan of the show but it takes a while to get through so let me give you some of the highlights.

[In case it isn't obvious, I should point out that what follows contains some pretty major spoilers for series one of The Wire.]

Names and characters

The first difference you'll notice is in the names. There are several differences. McNulty is McArdle, Lester Freamon is Lester Weeks, Rhonda Pearlman is Janelle Pearlman, Avon Barksdale is Aaron Barksdale and Stringer Bell is Stringy Bell. All changes sound better to me but perhaps I just prefer what I'm used to.

It's not just the names that are unfamiliar - some characters have significant differences. Herc is a steroid addict, for starters, while Santangelo, who figures more in this draft than he does in the screened series, has a gambling problem. Bubbles is 60 and dies from AIDS in the final episode.

Some of the characteristics of Barksdale and Bell were swapped around between outline and screen. It's Barksdale who fancies himself as a property investor and is cultivating political contacts. Bell is a decade older than his boss - they no longer came up together - and he is less polished and more thuggish than Barksdale.

I think Simon was smart to change that. The tension between Barksdale and Bell, the latter smarter than his boss but not street-smart enough, is crucial to how the first three seasons unfold. That tension is compounded by the fact that the two are childhood friends, something that gives enormous resonance to the double betrayal at the end of series three.

Missing in action

There is a lot less of Freamon and Bunk in Simon's original. Though Freamon still surprises his colleagues by turning out to be real police, he loses his lead role on the wire to McArdle and it is Daniels who does some of the financial investigation.

Bunk drinks far less with McArdle than he does with McNulty and is ditched altogether from the now-classic crime scene investigation out in the County. In the final version, of course, McNulty and Bunk piece together the entire crime using only variations on the word fuck. In the draft, McArdle schools Greggs in the art of murder investigation. Another change for the better from Simon.

We don't see Cheryl, Greggs' girlfriend, even once. In fact we don't see much of the home lives of our characters at all.

Finally, there's no Pryzbylewski. It's Greggs who cracks the dealers' payphone code and its Herc and Carver together with a couple of unnamed cops who start a late-night riot in the projects.

How the plot unfolds

The big shock compared to the final version of season one is the death of Greggs halfway through. It's especially shocking because the draft centres much more on her and McArdle, who do most of the work of the detail themselves.

The circumstances in which Greggs is killed are similar to those which result in her being shot in the finished series. She is undercover in a drugs sting that goes wrong. In the draft she winds up at Orlando's where D'Angelo identifies her. The dealers attempt to get her out of the club but she fights back and is killed.

This is perhaps the only thing in the draft that is stronger than what made it to screen. Greggs is a great character and it would be a shame to lose her for later series but her death in the draft is much more powerful than the shooting in the final version. Still, if she'd died in season one we would have lost her "goodnight feens" scene in season five, which is one of my favourites.

Greggs's death galvanises the investigation and allows the unit to turn D'Angelo, who feels guilty at his role in her death. D'Angelo, wearing a wire, is sent to get evidence on Barksdale and Bell. However, the dealers are tipped-off and the unit gets nothing.

In fact, at every turn the dealers seem to be ahead of them. They discover that Santangelo has been tipping off Bell. He needed the cash to service his gambling debts. I think Simon was smart to ditch this. We've seen it before and it's not the kind of corruption that The Wire seeks to document. The snitching plot that replaces it - Carver keeping the chief posted on the investigation - fits far better: it's corruption for professional, rather than financial, ends.

As in the final version, the money leads to a senator, though this time it's Dawkins rather than Davis, and the bosses are displeased. They derail the political side of the investigation by arresting Herc for buying steroids. Herc is kicked off the force and the parts of the investigation that he worked on are deemed tainted.

The series closes with D'Angelo in hiding in Atlanta, having testified against Barksdale and Bell.

The conclusion

It's a fascinating read, not least because the vision for what The Wire would be was clearly in place from the outset. What they changed was, almost without exception, changed for the better and the addition of four extra episodes allowed them to add depth.

And thank god they didn't kill off Bubbles.

New York's Museum of the Moving Image analyses The Wire

The Museum of the Moving Image in New York has published a few items about The Wire. There are video essays about the credit sequences for all five seasons: one, two, three, four and five. Yes, that's nerdy but that's the effect this show can have on people. There are a couple of interesting insights in each one. Then there are two short articles about the series. This one, by cinema professor Dana Polan, examines the cyclical nature of narratives in The Wire and contains spoilers for anyone who hasn't yet seen the end of season five:

"The Wire is strikingly bereft of a central figure from whose perspective the story is told and whose voyage of self-awareness provides its raison d’etre. Instead it suggests that in the complexly knit fabric that is the urban environment, any one figure is little more than a place-holder, a token that can always be replaced by someone else."

The second article, by author filmmaker and producer Nelson George, is spoiler-free and looks at race, a central theme of The Wire but one that was seldom explicit:

"Whether it was the relationships between drug lords Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell or between Mayor Clarence Royce and his police commissioner Ervin Burrell or among the doomed high school boys of Season 4, The Wire offered views of these African-American men that is only surpassed, in my mind, by the collected works of the late playwright August Wilson. (My only complaint is that too few of these indelible characters were female.)"

Finally, in case you missed it, last weekend's Observer carried an interview with George Pelecanos, the novelist and one of the writers on The Wire. Among other things, the story claims that the episodes of The Wire with the fewest black characters got the highest ratings. I can't see how that's possible given that the cast was almost entirely black but, if true, it's a depressing fact.

The Wire: just watch it

If you haven't watched The Wire yet, this clip gives you a good idea of what you're missing: [youtube]7bR3T1eThJU[/youtube]

It's amazing writing. The metaphor for the whole series is delivered in three minutes. And the motto "the king stay the king" applies not just to drug dealers but to every institution in the show. Whatever the characters do, however hard they try to effect change, everything stays the same.

But like all great writing, it doesn't just advance the plot, it reveals character too. D'Angelo knows the rules, so we know he's too smart for the game - smart enough to know that a pawn can never win. Wallace, on the left, is ignorant of the rules and doesn't really understand them, even when they're explained to him. Bodie, on the right, is ignorant too but arrogant enough to think that he can win. He can be the pawn that makes it.

The important point to remember is that scenes like this are the norm in The Wire. It's all written like this: rich, thoughtful and powerful. There's more to say about this scene but stop here if you haven't reached the end of series four.

SPOILER

SPACE

(SERIOUSLY)

Of course, by the end of series four, all three are dead. Wallace and D'Angelo died trying to get out of the game and Bodie died trying to stay in. In retrospect their fates were obvious from this scene. The writers probably knew how Wallace's story would end when they wrote this scene. They may have known what would happen to D'Angelo. But there is no way Bodie's fate was decided when this scene was written.

It just shows the extent to which the writing on The Wire serves the needs of the characters.

Farewell to The Wire... for now

I've written before about my love for The Wire. Now I've managed to take my ravings to a wider audience. This show really does turn viewers into evangelists - I've introduced a few people and they, in turn, have introduced others. If this ripple effect hasn't got you yet, I'm sure it will eventually. As the article says, season four has just ended. There's one more season left and then the show wraps up for good. If you're in the UK, you can see the series from the very first episode from July 23 on FX.

Book eighteen: Hard Revolution by George Pelecanos

George Pelecanos is one of the writers of HBO's The Wire, the best show on television. In fact, it's possibly the best TV show ever made. If you believe British TV critics, you may be under the impression that the best show on television is The Sopranos. The critics are wrong. Get series one of The Wire on DVD and see for yourself. Anyway, I'm supposed to be writing about the book. This is the first Pelecanos novel I've read and I picked an unusual starting point. His recent books have followed a pair of detectives, Derek Strange and Terry Quinn. Hard Revolution goes back to the Sixties and takes place during Strange's early career as a police.

I suspect there are probably a lot of things I missed that fans of the series would pick up on. I did notice a walk-on by Quinn, which would probably delight regulars, but any other nuggets about the man Strange will become passed me by.

Like most of Pelecanos's novels, Hard Revolution is set in Washington DC. The story takes place against a background of simmering racial tension that finally boils over in the days following the murder of Dr Martin Luther King. Almost every character represents a particular stance on race but Pelecanos is careful not to make them one dimensional.

Strange, for example, believes he is protecting his community but has to contend with the derision of other black people who see him as a traitor. His brother Derek is angry at white oppression but his refusal to engage with the system gives him a convenient excuse for his laziness.

Both boys are disappointed in what they see as their father's uncomplaining acceptance of his lesser role in society but later we learn that he suppresses his own anger at the system to protect his sons.

This complexity is sadly absent from the book's bad guys. There are two trios of villains in the story, one black, one white. Each is led by an irredeemably evil man, while the henchmen follow almost without question. The book would have been far better if the characters had been as nuanced and sympathetic as those in The Wire, where the line between good and evil is frequently unclear.

One area where the book matches The Wire is the dialogue. Pelecanos has a brilliant ear for the way people speak and this, together with the tangible sense of place, really brings the book to life.

He also has an obvious love of popular culture. The book is littered with references to sporting events of the day, loving descriptions of classic cars and nerdish details on soul music.

The music in particular underscores the book's theme of racial prejudice and hypocrisy. Even the racist white characters in the novel listen to black music, although they prefer the sanitised sound of Motown. The black characters generally go for Stax/Volt records, though Derek makes an exception for Marvin Gaye.

This isn't an outstanding book. It's pitched somewhere between thriller and race/character study but doesn't quite manage to be either. Still, it's worth reading for the dialogue and Pelecanos's exhaustive background details. I'll definitely read another book by him.