‘We Own This City’ on HBO is an ambitious, uneven companion to ‘The Wire’

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The first two episodes of HBO’s new police drama “We Own This City” introduce a dead man filled with bullets in an alley and a drug baron whose goods seem to leave a trail of corpses, but the real mystery is something completely different. The miniseries takes his title from a statement made not by criminals but by a Baltimore officer, Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal), who rises in ranks while planting drugs, committing assaults, stealing from both offenders and ordinary citizens – and shows his fellow officers how to get away with it all. The big question is not what he did, but why his superiors regarded him as their “golden boy” and turned a blind eye to his misdeeds for nearly a decade and a half.

Adapted by David Simon and George Pelecanos from former Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton’s non-fiction book, “We Own This City,” is a spiritual sequel to “The Wire,” revealing and lamenting the institutional dilemma that makes reform nearly impossible. Freddie Gray’s name is invoked early and often, though less as a victim of police brutality than as a timed marker, after which law enforcement officers dug even harder on the heels of reforms while residents became increasingly suspicious of them. In the opening scene, Jenkins stands at a lectern, discouraging other officers from using excessive force – and in the next, he threatens to hit someone with a baseball bat. According to the show, the only real achievement of the political energy around the police in the last few years may be their newfound ability to parrot the discussion points that the public wants to hear.

Showrunner Pelecanos shows no lack of ambition. “We Own This City” is a portrait of how police corruption destroys a city: draining its coffers to pay for settlements, disillusioning citizens with its leaders and institutions, and encouraging officers to act without regard to law or morality. Baltimore is its case study, but as one of the series’ preaching monologues makes clear, a Jenkins can happen anywhere. That impression is reinforced by the series ‘similarities to “The Shield,” the FX police thriller that took inspiration from Los Angeles’ late-90s Rampart scandal.

In 2017, Jenkins is the leader of the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), a rogue unit in Baltimore’s police department that is apparently targeting drug crimes. The elite squad actually consists of some of the city’s worst offenders. Several of its officers have already been punished by internal affairs for misdemeanor, such as the equally opportunistic Jemell Ryan (a stage-stealing Darrell Britt-Gibson). Others are on a list of officers who are no longer allowed to testify in court because of their history of perjury, such as the combative, born-to-bully Daniel Hersl (Josh Charles, who plays against the type). Still others openly strive to live as their criminal collaborators, like the dizzying Momodu “G Money” Gondo (McKinley Belcher III).

GTTF’s job was to remove weapons from the streets of Baltimore. These officers instead admitted to having stolen drugs and cash.

Like other shows of Simon and Pelecanos, “We Own This City” is not a very inviting world to enter. There are dozens of characters (some played by famous faces from “The Wire”), and the scripts are heavily spiced with statistics and inexplicable jargon and acronyms. The first few chapters are particularly – and to be honest, unnecessary – opaque, and jump between timelines with little yield. The remaining rates are structured around interviews, either by the pair of investigators (Dagmara Domińczyk and Don Harvey) working to close down the GTTF, or the federal civil rights lawyer (Wunmi Mosaku) in hopes of making the case for a major revision of the BPD via consent decree.

“We Own This City” is closer to a Simon-Pelecanos that was also run than another masterpiece a la “The Wire.” (The appearance of this series, from director Reinaldo Marcus Green from “King Richard”, is very reminiscent of its predecessor boring realism.) Six hours may not really be a big enough screen for everything the writers want to achieve – especially their efforts to shoehorn observations of how police work has changed since Grays’ death in 2015. The interviews evoke confessions from the dirty cops . a little too easily – however, satisfactorily there is no honor among the thieves, the ruthless extravagance of Jenkins’ thefts arouses an unexpected self-loathing among his troops. The series may be most effective when investigators talk to the victims of GTTF’s chaos as the human costs of police brutality against ordinary people pile up.

HBO’s ‘We Own This City’: An interview with David Simon and George Pelecanos

“The Wire” is most praised today for its great portrayal of law enforcement and the civil necrosis that makes effective policing a Sisyphean task, but as fans know, it also boasted beautifully crafted characters and countless actors with dizzying charisma. The performance here is fine, but not particularly remarkable, written by the meager screen time that any member of the huge ensemble is allotted. (In addition to Britt-Gibson, the prominent Jamie Hector – best known as the villainous Marlo on “The Wire” – who plays a murder detective who is worried that his years of working with Jenkins will hurt his career.) Simon and Pelecanos to avoid the pitfall that caught on “The Shield”: viewers identify with the repulsive protagonist as many rooted out Michael Chiklis’ Vic Mackey for continuing to outfox everyone around him despite his bottomless depravity.

The possibly limited characteristics in favor of a systemic focus – coupled with the many, many stories “We Own This City” takes hold – leave the series somewhat didactic and airless. But viewers who are not already familiar with the GTTF scandal get a shocking account of police crime. It’s that kind of flabbering narrative that makes you wonder how many others like what is still out there.

We own this city (one hour) premieres Monday at 9pm on HBO.

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