You can’t discuss the crime, policing and the impact of the War on Drugs in Baltimore without bringing up David Simon’s HBO classic The Wire.
I mean… you can, but why would you want to? The influence of what some critics would call the pinnacle drama of TV’s most recent Golden Age is incalculable, and has expanded into some areas that nobody could have predicted – like co-star Sonja Sohn’s evolution into recent Baltimore’s preeminent nonfiction chronicler with the documentaries Baltimore Rising and The Slow Hustle.
We Own This City
The Bottom Line
Not ‘The Wire,’ but darned solid.
Nobody explicitly mentions The Wire in HBO’s new six-part limited series We Own This Citybut Simon and longtime collaborator George Pelecanos’ adaptation of reporter Justin Fenton’s nonfiction book is informed and infused by the legacy of The Wire. It’s woven through every setting; it colors the show’s casting choices; it’s an unspoken callback any time any character listens to a surveillance feed or runs headlong into layers of intractable bureaucracy.
Because of Simon’s involvement, We Own This City becomes an exploration of lessons unlearned, reforms gone astray and the bone-deep sadness that comes from the awareness that, almost 20 years after The Wire premiered, we’re still having the same conversations, pretending to celebrate the same Pyrrhic victories, paying lip service to the same notions that progress is being made.
Repetition and frustration are baked into the DNA of We Own This City, integral to the show’s theme and structure. At the same time, they’re also the show’s primary stumbling blocks. It’s partially that Simon and company clearly feel like they’ve covered this material before and they’re looking for new ways to tell the stories, reinventing a wheel that was working fine before. And it’s partially that Simon is not a man of infinite patience, and there are long stretches of We Own This City that feel like the work of a storyteller who would just as soon yell into a void – or at least introduce a non-character played by Treat Williams to spell out things that many (or most) viewers probably would have understood anyway.
We Own This City is the story of the 2017 scandal that hit the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force. As reported by Fenton, the case had everything. Stolen drugs and money. Police brutality and shakedowns. Fraudulent overtime.
The GTTF is led by Jon Bernthal’s Wayne Jenkins, whose progress through the BPD is traced from wide-eyed rookie to unscrupulous badge-waving squad leader. The passage of time is conveyed via unconvincing facial hair and flashbacks to misbehavior in the early ’00s, with one mishandled case after another given temporal context courtesy of online police activity logs shown in close-ups of computer screens.
The facial hair and so-called “run sheets” are just a few of the ways We Own This City attempts, with limited success, to situate viewers within a jumbled narrative, forcing our inherent desire for linearity to take priority over understanding true geopolitical context.
The story is divided among members of Wayne’s team – including Josh Charles’ Daniel Hersl, Darrell Britt Gibson’s Jemell Rayam, McKinley Belcher III’s Momodu Gondo and Rob Brown’s Maurice Ward – spilling their guts in interrogation-generated flashbacks. The attempts to bring down the GTTF are overseen by an FBI-fronted team led by Dagmara Domińczyk’s Erika Jensen and Don Harvey’s John Sieracki, plus a group of attorneys with the Justice Department fronted by Wunmi Mosaku’s Nicole and Ian Duff’s Ahmed Jackson.
If The Wiredespite all of its built-in cynicism, still tried to emphasize the positive potential of its handful of well-intentioned cops, We Own This City admits how, a decade after we met McNulty and Bunk and Lester Freamon, actual officers trying to do the job are rarely the actual heroes in the story. The first couple of episodes might point to detectives McDougall (David Corenswet) and Kilpatrick (Larry Mitchell) as potential protagonists, but they nearly vanish in the season’s second half. Delaney Williams ’BPD commissioner Kevin Davis is the representative of many years of flawed leadership, and newly minted homicide detective Sean Suiter (Jamie Hector) captures the challenges of fundamentally honest officers soiled by proximity to the departmental filth.
Seasons of The Wire would build their treatment of flawed institutions around season-long mysteries or doomed character arcs. We Own This City treats those procedural mysteries as the police equivalent of trying to catch smoke with your bare hands. One brutality case, one case of unreported dope or cash, one body in an alley – these are barely even relevant to the bigger law enforcement catastrophe. They’re symptoms that the host body has shamefully learned to live with.
We Own This City indeed isn’t about drug busts or murders. Those are just things that happen. It’s about bigger concepts like the DOJ’s attempt to get the BPD put under a consent decree, which gets the kind of under-explained, opaque treatment that Simon gave to most of the public housing underpinnings in Show Me a Hero.
Simon, Pelecanos and series director Reinaldo Marcus Green (King Richard) resist hand-holding throughout, and while I’m definitely not saying that We Own This City would have benefited from condescending, Adam McKay-style audience explainers of terminology, jurisdiction and motivations, the substitute for a single cogent exposition dump here is endless repetition. Even that doesn’t prevent the need for Treat Williams as a police academy instructor who lectures the audience and Mosaku’s Nicole on why the War on Drugs was bad.
Williams’ part, far smaller than trailers might lead you to believe, is clearly meant to call to mind Sidney Lumet’s urban police corruption classic Prince of the City – another of those “The more we pretend things have changed, nothing has changed” nods along the lines of all of the Wire veterans in the cast. I mentioned Hector going from crime lord Marlo to a man of conscience, Britt-Gibson from one type of street enforcer to another, and Delaney Williams from a snarky embodiment of authority to a less snarky version, but the supporting cast is piled high with The Wire casting callbacks, some instantly recognizable and others only clicking after several scenes. Simon will never let you forget that he’s told you this story before, making connections without having to spell everything out. (I’ll leave it for viewers to decide if having Gabrielle Carteris playing a fed named “Andrea” is meant to do something similar with Beverly Hills, 90210.)
A common “complaint” about The Wire is that it starts slow, as shorthand for “It takes a while to figure out who everybody is.” That’s more accurate here, because with only six episodes and no desire or ability to “humanize” some of the more venal criminal cops, some of the characterizations end up being a little thin.
Bernthal doesn’t benefit from the time-in-a-blender narrative approach, but his swagger and macho zeal convey the bottomless pool of self-delusion that could cause a monster in uniform to believe he was still on the right side of the law. . It’s a great performance, so full of increasingly out-of-control magnetism that you can imagine a Wolf of Wall Street-style feature built around Wayne’s misbehavior, and you can be relieved this show avoids that kind of potential glorification.
Britt-Gibson, Belcher and especially Charles exhibit ample charisma as cops with no such delusion, just a general desire to enjoy the fruits of their misdeeds before things go south.
Mosaku has probably the show’s most purely idealistic character, and she plays it with determination, even as you know nothing good comes from being idealistic in Baltimore. Exhibiting more weary nobility, Domińczyk and Harvey have some of the show’s best banter and little notes of humor that otherwise feel lacking in certain spots.
Really, there isn’t a bad performance in it We Own This City – a real achievement in a cast this big – and Simon and Pelecanos’ indignation feels consistently earned and documented at every level. They were the right people to tell this story, because nobody knows this milieu better and nobody blends dogma and drama as well.
It’s a show that benefits from its proximity to The Wire and also suffers from it, because you can be a darned solid show and still not be The Wire. We Own This City? Darned solid, flaws and all.