We Own This City review – an essential tale of systemic corruption

April 26, 2022
Jonathon Wilson 0
HBO, TV, TV Reviews
4

Summary

David Simon delivers once again, this time adapting an essential nonfiction book about systemic corruption.

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4

Summary

David Simon delivers once again, this time adapting an essential nonfiction book about systemic corruption.

This review of We Own This City is spoiler-free.


One of my favorite online interactions of all time is when some random woman on Twitter asked David Simon if he’d ever seen The Wire, and I was thinking about this earlier because it kind of summarizes how that all-time-great HBO show has become the absolute benchmark for on-screen depictions of policing, politics, and systemic corruption. The Wire is always relevant in discussions of Simon’s work since it’s, well, The Wire, but it’s especially relevant to the new six-part limited series We Own This City.

Count the similarities. It’s on HBO. It’s set in Baltimore. It was created by Simon and long-time collaborator George Pelecanos. It stars many alumni of The Wire, not reprising roles but embodying new ones. It’s about law enforcement, local and national politics, and inner-city life, from a multitude of viewpoints. If you squinted a little, you could struggle to tell the two shows apart.

But there are a couple of key differences. One is that Simon and Pelecanos are adapting reporter Justin Fenton’s nonfiction book, which details a real-life 2017 scandal within the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force. The other is that twenty years have elapsed since The Wire debuted in 2022. A lot has changed since then, and a lot hasn’t, and the dilemma of We Own This City seems to be in emphasizing how little progress has been made while also trying to find new ways to tell old stories.

By this, I mean that the one real downside of We Own This City is that it’s trying a little too hard to not be The Wire. It’s a bit more deliberately clever with time and a jumbled, nonlinear narrative that seems to borrow a little too heavily from the first season of True Detective, right down to the ending of the premiere, which features GTTF leader Sergeant Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal) addressing the camera directly across an interview table. In Jenkins, the show has an electrifying villain, but someone who feels like more of a character than a person. Bernthal is sublime, as he always is, but he’s so good that you feel his absence whenever he isn’t around. One of the narrative techniques We Own This City uses – alongside administrative “run sheets” – to emphasize the passage of time is changes to Jenkins’ hairstyles and appearance; so devoted is the show to him that he’s our single point of orientation in a complex hodgepodge of botched cases and shady deals spanning years.

It’s in this way, I think, that We Own This City trips itself up occasionally. It’d be unfair to simply say, “It isn’t as good as The Wire!” and then sign off for lunch, since this is a different show, based on nonfiction material, and I don’t think anybody was really expecting it to be. But it would have been better served by more focus, linearity, and clearer context; a more procedural, less elevated style, even if it did invite even more comparisons to The Wire than were desirable. After all, what’s wrong with being very much like one of the very best shows ever?

But enough about all this. After a few episodes, you’ll be able to see the overall shape of We Own This City, which is often framed by testimony from Jenkins’ team – Daniel Hersl (Josh Charles), Maurice Ward (Rob Brown), Momodu Gondo (McKinley Belcher III), and Jemell Rayam (Darrell Britt Gibson) – while being interrogated by an FBI team led by Erika Jensen (Dagmara Domi?czyk) and John Sieracki (Don Harvey). The Feds want to take down GTTF, as do the DOJ, who’re represented here by Civil Rights attorney Nicole (Wunmi Mosaku) and Ahmed Jackson (Ian Duff), but doing so is near-impossible thanks to reams of tangled bureaucracy and a post-Freddie Gray political climate that has seen a surge in crime and a massive reduction in arrests, meaning that officers like those in the GTTF who get results by any means necessary have become invaluable.

You can see the nonfiction roots of We Own This City in its wider view of institutions instead of a narrow focus on individuals. Those figures who would be well-meaning cops or policymakers straining against the system in a narrative show are here mostly used in a utilitarian way to make a point about how GTTF do things, and attention always returns to that institutional level. It can make the show feel cynical and impersonal, and that focus on Bernthal’s Jenkins can threaten to strip a lot of the potential humanity away. Of course, this is a story about systemic corruption, but it’s also about the people who are victimized or lionized by it.

Really, though, I’m being nit-picky, because We Own the City is for the most part phenomenal television. It’s full of great performances, purposeful storytelling – at least once you figure out who’s who and what’s what – and righteous indignation. It tells a necessary story about corruption within our most cherished and essential systems, and laments how long we allowed it to continue, and how many people we allowed it to hurt. Don’t miss this one.

You can catch We Own This City exclusively on HBO.

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