If “The Wire” defined the futility of the drug war – and not incidentally ranks as one of the greatest series ever made in the eyes of a loyal few – its fictional look at policing Baltimore merges with a fact-based version in “We Own This City,” a spare but bleak window into a culture of corruption that plagued the city’s police department.
“The Wire” producer David Simon, again working with George Pelecanos, here adapts a book by Justin Fenton, a reporter at Simon’s former stomping grounds the Baltimore Sun, detailing the abuses by Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force, and how higher-ups looked the other way on malfeasance and complaints as long as arrest rates remained high.
Jumping back and forth in time, the six-episode series proves a little disorienting at first as it flits among various characters and stories, with the key touchstone being charges filed against Baltimore officers over Freddie Gray, who died in police custody in 2015. The Gray case brought federal scrutiny to the department’s actions, with Wunmi Mosaku (“Loki”) playing Nicole Steele, an attorney with the Justice Dept.’s Civil Rights division investigating police corruption, working against a deadline knowing the Trump administration might not follow through on her efforts.
Other key figures include Jon Bernthal (“The Punisher”) as Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, a rogue officer whose exploits are documented through those aforementioned flashbacks; and Jamie Hector (“The Wire”) as Sean M. Suiter, a detective who begins to face uncomfortable questions regarding his past.
As with “The Wire,” “We Own This City” provides a granular look at the bureaucratic dysfunction that allowed certain cops to operate so brazenly, including the leverage wielded by officers over department and city officials concerned about their own careers and election prospects.
“You cut overtime, patrol cars go empty,” the world-weary police commissioner (Delaney Williams) warns city leaders, who fidget uncomfortably when confronted by rising crime rates and finding the money to impose the necessary reforms.
Simon’s familiar team (including producers Pelecanos, Nina K. Noble and Ed Burns) is joined by director Reinaldo Marcus Green (“King Richard”), along with several familiar faces from Simon’s past projects in the cast.
What’s striking is how neatly the real events depicted in “We Own This City” (a line stated, overtly, by one of the cops) fit with the storylines “The Wire” tackled 20 years ago, only here on the other side of the Black Lives Matter movement and efforts to address police brutality toward people of color, fueled by the ubiquity of cellphones documenting such incidents.
Indicative of law enforcement’s inclination to circle the wagons, after one violent encounter Jenkins is reminded to word reports in order to avoid any consequences, with a superior telling him, “The threat to your safety can never be mentioned enough.”
As noted, the project feels a little messy in the early going, but the pieces come together in a compelling way, illustrating the deep roots of police excesses and the elusiveness of the political will to achieve genuine solutions.
“I fought this war,” Treat Williams, playing a retired detective, tells Steele regarding the drug war. “It was lost when I got there. And I did nothing but lose in my time.”
“We Own This City” doesn’t reach the level that “The Wire” did. Yet in terms of bringing a sharp dramatic eye to big-city policing, Simon and company pretty much own this genre.
“We Own This City” premieres April 25 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.