‘We Own This City’ Review: Baltimore Police Problems, Rewired

Let us stipulate that it is unfair to compare any series to “The Wire,” even if it is about policing, even if it is set in Baltimore, even if it happens to be made by two of the figures behind that HBO all-time great, which marks its two-decade anniversary this year.

Having thus stipulated, it would also be absurd to pretend not to notice the connection. It hasn’t escaped David Simon and George Pelecanos, the creator and a producer of “The Wire,” who have returned to their geographic and rhetorical turf with “We Own This City,” beginning on HBO Monday.

The six-episode scripted series is at once an extension, an updating and a partial revision of their landmark drama’s critique of policing. Its arguments are bold and impossible to miss. What you might miss is the vivid human tapestry that brings this kind of institutional analysis to life on the screen and keeps it alive in your memory.

The corruption and civic woes the show details, as in much of Simon’s work (“Treme,” “The Deuce”), are systemic. But they also have a brash, cocky face: Sgt. Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal), who as the real-life head of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force turned that elite plainclothes unit into a state-run gang, skimming cash and drugs from raid targets and using his status in the department to cover up abuse, corruption and deadly procedural violations.

The streets, the drug houses, the cops pursuing petty busts to drive up their stats — you can almost hear the voice telling you to keep the devil way down in the hole. But except for flashbacks, the story is set in the latter 2010s. The phones are smarter; the law enforcement machinery is not.

While the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, after a “rough ride” in a police van, is not depicted, it hangs over everything here, from Black Baltimoreans’ mistrust of the police to the post-Gray work slowdown by officers. The latter, in the series’s view, allowed crime to spike — and in turn motivated the police brass to ignore Jenkins’s crimes until a federal investigation exposed them.

Simon’s longtime critiques in many ways anticipated the protests over policing of the past several years. But the spirit of those protests also seems reflected in this new story.

“The Wire” had built into it the distinction between good police work (painstaking, intensive, focused on real harm) and bad (petty busts and harassment to drive up arrest numbers and make politicians look good). For every inept, violent Roland Pryzbylewski, there was a Lester Freamon, practicing the patient craft of building a case. (And even Pryzbylewski eventually redeemed himself.)

“We Own This City” seems to question not whether good policing exists but whether the current system makes it impossible. It opens as Jenkins gives a speech to his unit in which he seems to say the right things — that beating on people gets in the way of doing the job and that, in the task force, “we’re not about” that kind of brutality.

In practice, they’re all about that brutality and then some. “We Own This City” does not do much to explain Jenkins or complicate his villainy, but it is insightful about how a bad cop learns to be bad more effectively (and how he makes his colleagues worse).

Through his early years on the force, Jenkins goes from learning how to scam the overtime rules to outright larceny. He also learns a sense of entitlement; the series’s title comes from a speech in which he tells his cronies that “as long as we put those numbers up” by making arrests, they can do what they want.

Really, “The Wire” isn’t the only show the setup brings to mind. Police stuffing their pockets and rationalizing it as their just dues was the subject of “The Shield” (itself inspired by a Los Angeles police scandal), which celebrates its own 20-year anniversary this spring. Like many series right now, this one is using a nonfiction story to approximate the power of fictional drama.

“We Own This City” is based on a book by the Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton. (The 2021 HBO documentary “The Slow Hustle,” by the “Wire” alum Sonja Sohn, touched on aspects of the case.) So the federal investigation that eventually brought Jenkins and some of his cronies to justice is no spoiler. That case gives the series its shape and through-line, but also a relentless, repetitive structure.

The Baltimore dialogue still has Old Bay piquancy, and some strong performances kick scenes to life. Bernthal (recently of the “Sopranos” prequel, “The Many Saints of Newark”) makes a convincing baby gangster, arrogant and petulant, growing sloppier and greedier. And Josh Charles (“The Good Wife”) plays impressively against type as Daniel Hersl, a bullet-headed task-force thug who makes Jenkins look like a diplomat.

“We Own This City” tends to choose telling over showing, however, especially on the investigation side of the story. As Nicole Steele, a civil-rights-division attorney, Wunmi Mosaku does all she can to create a character who feels her mission deeply and who chafes at her department’s resistance to real change. We glimpse Steele’s motives when she recalls her brother’s being racially profiled by police.

But the character functions mostly to deliver exposition and make, or receive, the show’s arguments. Late in the series, she meets with Brian Grabler (Treat Williams), a retired detective turned critic of the department, who makes a Socratic case that the war on drugs has failed. What, he asks Steele, is driving the police’s actions? “What’s the mission?”

“The drug war,” she says.

“Exactly. And in a war, you need warriors. In a war, you have enemies. In a war, civilians get hurt and nobody does anything. In a war, you count the bodies and then you call them victories.”

It’s a strong editorial, but that does not make for a great show. “We Own This City” is still a very good show, with granular realism, a sly sense of humor and fine acting top to bottom. But its indictments lack the character shading that animated Simon’s adaptations of the housing-policy story “Show Me a Hero” and his own book “The Corner.”

Maybe this is intentional. To return to our unfair comparison, “The Wire” believed that systemic forces mattered more than individual failure or triumph. All those season-ending montages seemed to say: No matter how you feel about the end of this or that particular story, the beat goes on. Along the way, though, you got a lot of rich personal stories to invest in, which is how dramas with a broad social scope manage to succeed as both art and argument.

“We Own This City” instead works as a kind of appendix, an updated extra for Simon and Pelecanos’s existing, well-earned fan base. This series may not change the game. But it is a pointed reminder that after all this time — to quote a series that remains quotable for a reason — the game is the game.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button