Jon Bernthal in We Own This City (Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO)
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We Own This City
Six-Episode Limited Series (Crime Drama) | TV-MA
what’s We Own This City About?
We Own This City is a dramatization of the events surrounding a monstrous scandal that enveloped the Baltimore Police Department in 2017.
David Simon and his longtime collaborator George Pelacanos adapted the story from the nonfiction account by Justin Fenton, who reported on the story for the baltimore sun (where Simon once had Fenton’s beat) and got his book deal with Simon’s help. Reinaldo Marcus Green (king richard) directs all six episodes.
Returning to the ZIP codes where TheWire took place, we’re introduced to a new set of cops, detectives, supervisors, and pols. By far the most interesting are the dirty cops who work for the city’s elite Gun Trace Task Force, charged with clearing guns and drugs from the streets of Baltimore. John Bernthal is chilling in portraying his Task Force leader Det. Wayne Jenkins (the names have not been changed to protect the guilty). As we discover in the telling of this story — using those timeline rewinds and fast-forwards that have become so fashionable — Jenkins joined a unit that was already pretty corrupt and rose through the ranks, building the Task Force into a power that did what it wanted to do, took what it wanted to take, and found ways to perpetuate itself so that it could never be brought down… until by sheer dumb luck it was.
The poster boy for the Task Force is Daniel Hersl, played so convincingly by Josh Charles that you might not recognize him at first. He’s an enforcer with a long list of complaints against him and as the earnest lawyer/plot explainer played by Wunmi Mosaku soon learns, every judge and higher-up in Baltimore City knows that Hersl is a problem. They just can’t do anything about him because he delivers results.
Other actors play detectives who occupy various points on the moral spectrum, from the regretful Ward (Rob Brown) to the conflicted Suiter (Jamie Hector) to sociopaths like Rayam (Darrell Britt-Gibson) and G Money (McKinley Belcher III). Perhaps unavoidably, the HBO-sized cast is dominated by men, who play activists, civic leaders, victims of the Task Force, and other figures in its downfall.
Why (and to whom) do we recommend it?
Some may watch We Own This City like it’s a new season of TheWire, and they may not care that it’s too long or didactic. But it does feel like Simon and Pelacanos don’t know what to do with their anger that, after 14 years, conditions have seemingly not improved in Baltimore for the most vulnerable of its citizens. Other recent adaptations of nonfiction with grim storylines have better pacing and character development: Maid, Nomadland, Dopesick, and The Dropout, to name just a few. All that said, We Own This City comes reasonably close to serving as a Wire follow up. It tells a compelling story that must be seen to be believed. And it effectively raises a myriad of vital and not easily answered questions about not only public safety, but also the future of public institutions.
Pairs well with
- Seven Seconds (Netflix) — Regina King powers this suspenseful tale of a New Jersey community upended after a white cop kills a Black child.
- hightown (Starz) — Diverse if formulaic crime saga is distinguished by Monica Raymund’s performance as an addict drawn into a murder investigation.