What are we going to say?

Omar Little, and good advice. Plus, 7 other things worth your time.

Actor Michael K. Williams died last week. I included a link in one of the newsletters. He played Omar Little on The Wire, among other roles.

Ha. “Among other roles.” Who are we kidding?

Williams had a good career as an actor, but he’ll be remembered as Omar: one of the most complex, iconic, and entertaining dramatic characters of the 21st century.

It’s not just me saying it:

Let’s just say that if you’ve never seen The Wire and have no idea what I’m talking about… well, I’ve got your next binge-watch for you.

The show was a crime drama set in Baltimore, created by author and former Baltimore Sun police reporter David Simon. Williams’s character, Omar, was a stickup artist who robbed drug dealers—although that barely scratches the surface.

Anyway, today’s column isn’t really about Omar. Instead, it’s about Williams himself, and the question he apparently made a habit of asking Simon each season before they started shooting The Wire.

That question was: “What are we going to say?”

As Simon wrote in the NYT over the weekend, he wanted The Wire to be much more than just a crime show; it was to be a biography of the American city.

One season it worked to say something poignant about the rise of the drug trade; the next was about “the death of legitimate work.”

Another season was about toxic politics; another had something to say about failing schools; yet another was about the news media.

It was just a TV show, sure, but even though they’d already written most of each season’s scripts by the time Williams asked the question, it sparked a long conversation about the themes—so that as they faced a million little decisions during shooting, they’d have a bias toward choices that reinforced the central message.

As Simon wrote, not many actors had the drive to focus on the arc of the show like that, as opposed to the arc of their character:

He gave us an astounding gift—an act of faith from a magnificent actor who could have played his hand very differently.

Television usually chases its audience—if they love them some Omar, you feed them more Omar. … Never mind story and theme.

Instead, Mike bent his beautiful mind to a task that even the best writers and show runners often avoid. He thought about the whole story, the whole of the work.

“I started to realize that, oh, this is not about me,” Williams once told an interviewer, looking back. “It had everything to do with … just great tapestry, this great narrative of social issues … things that are wrong in our country.”

I loved the TV show, as you can probably tell, and I was sad to hear of Williams’s passing at the too-young age of 54.

So I’m glad to have a chance to write about him, and double-down on this epitaph. I think we’ll all be telling stories one way or another today. Maybe I’ll think a little bit harder about what I want mine to say.

Call for comments: Actually, I’m curious how many readers will fall into the “I never watched The Wire,” category, and how many, like me, could probably quote half the show by memory. So maybe let us know. But also, in honor of this great question: “What are you going to say today?”

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