Storytelling, journalism live on The Wire

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Abby and I are reveling in the sweep and depth of HBO’s The Wire. It’s a piece of genius, 60 hours of entertainment that feels like reading a masterful series of crime novels. Or a week’s worth of old-school newspaper reports, what was once called “a series” and now is a rare breed indeed.

The creator of these connected, 1-hour dramas started as a journalist at the Baltimore Sun, but after 13 years of crime articles David Simon aspired to say more than newsprint could carry about important issues. He wrote a non-fiction book in the late ’80s that became the blueprint for Homicide, another TV show. In The Wire Simon, along with his ex-cop, schoolteacher creative partner Ed Burns, takes on big matters like poverty, crime, education, graft, politics both good and bad. They have created a Book That Makes a Difference and plays out on your DVD screen.

In his closing letter after the series wrapped, Simon points out that The Wire was built on interviews and details with experts. Once upon a time, he asserts, journalism at its best told this kind of story.

For those of us writing The Wire, a television drama, story research involved dragging the right police lieutenants or school teachers, prosecutors and political functionaries to neighborhood diners and bars and taking story notes down on cocktail napkins and paper placemats. To be more precise with their tales? To record it and relay it in a manner that can stand as non-fiction truthtelling? Yes, that’s harder to do. But there was a time when journalism regarded that kind of coverage as its highest mission.

The true stories that The Wire traded in are out there, waiting for anyone willing to take the time. And it is, of course, vaguely disturbing to us that our unlikely little television drama is making arguments that were once the prerogative of more serious mediums.

The lesson to take away here is the drive for details, usually accumulated through personal contact. Efforts to connect with resources in this way will make a story stronger, whether it’s drama or non-fiction or the creative non-fiction that blends both. (There’s also the lesson about journalism fundamentals being a sound foundation for fiction, but this old newspaperman will not wax on too long about that bromide.)

By the way, if you rent The Wire, be sure to turn on the subtitles. It adds a level of richness for a writer, or anyone who enjoys a good read.

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