TV miniseries review: We Own This City (HBO, 2022), directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green
tl;dr: Baltimore is back! It’s a lot like The Wire, while being nothing like The Wire.
Based on a true crime book by Baltimore Sun investigative journalist Justin Fenton and developed into a highly anticipated six-part miniseries by The Wire‘s David Simon and George Pelecanos is what has been dubbed a sort of “spiritual successor” to The Wire. The setting is the same: the police force in Baltimore, but where The Wire showed the police as flawed and jaded, they were still (mostly) on the side of doing good. In We Own This City, we see what happens when the police have given up and basically gone “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”.
You can’t talk about this without drawing parallels with The Wire. Not just because of the people behind the screen, and the setting, but even the opening credits feel very similar – not to mention how many people in front of the camera that you might recognise: Anwan Glover, Bobby J Brown, Chris Clanton, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Delaney Williams, Domenick Lombardozzi, Jamie Hector, Jermaine Crawford, Melvin T Russell, Nathan Corbett, Robert Poletick, Tray Chaney, and I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed.
The cast also features a number of actors for whom this is their first IMDb credit, so I hope we get to see more of them in the future!
We Own This City is the true story about the Gun Trace Task Force, a plain clothes section of the Baltimore P.D. given pretty much carte blanche to do as they please as long as they get the job done. The job being to get guns and drugs off the street. This is good – in theory. In practice? They beat people up, plant drugs and guns on people to warrant arrests, they steal both money and drugs they’re meant to confiscate from busts, and they defraud the department for bogus overtime claims. They live the high life, but they’re little more than the thugs they’re meant to put away.
The story also follows Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku), a lawyer assigned to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, as she gathers information to build a case for implementing a Consent Decree (not entirely sure on what that entails, but tl;dr it’s police reform), which the mayor would need to sign off on. She speaks to a lot of people for this, from community activist and author Tariq Touré (Nathan Corbett) to retired-detective-turned-police-academy-teacher Brian Grabler (Treat Williams).
Meanwhile, police commissioner Kevin Davis (Delaney Williams) is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The Gun Trace Task Force get results, great results, and while he’s aware that something needs to be done, the city has gone through four police commissioners in the past eight years, and there’s not enough time to get any real change implemented as a result. Not to mention it’s difficult to teach old dogs new tricks, and the new tricks cost money. And the mayor wants better results using less money, of course, and the police force itself is weary of doing any real police work after a court case made the police liable for the death of a person they were arresting.
By chance, while putting a tracker on a drug dealer’s car, a team from the Harford County Narcotics Task Force (David Corenswet, Tray Chaney) discover the car already has a tracker on it. They start looking into it, and find it links to the Gun Trace Task Force. As a result of this, FBI agent Erika Jensen (Dagmara Domińczyk) and John Sieracki (Don Harvey), a police officer assigned to the public corruption task force, start looking into the Gun Trace Task Force and its members. There are even wire taps …
Told through a series of intercut time jumps and flashbacks we follow, chiefly, Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal), who would eventually come to take over the GTTF from Sgt Allers (Bobby J Brown). We meet Jenkins as a rookie, whose first instruction from his training officer is to forget everything he learned at the academy. A few years later, Jenkins repeats the exact same advice to the rookie he’s training. We also find out about the other GTTF officers: Momodu “G Money” Gondo (McKinley Belcher III), Jemell Rayam (Darrell Britt-Gibson), Maurice Ward (Rob Brown), and the sadistic racist Daniel Hersl (Josh Charles). Sean Suiter (Jamie Hector) eventually moves on to become a good Homicide detective.
It was kind of funny that Donald Stepp (Seth Hurwitz), a bail bondsman and friend/drug fence of Jenkins, sort of looked like an American version of Claes Malmberg.
The interesting thing is that we already know that the GTTF get nailed from the start of episode one, so the rest is finding out exactly what they did to get arrested, and how the investigation into them went, along with witness statements from the officers in questions. I thought it was fascinating. While I found The Wire to be too depressing – everything’s fucked and that’s just how things are until something major changes – We Own This City is perhaps not as depressing, but it is infuriating.
On the plus side, we know the corrupt cops get arrested and put away, so in a sense the good guys win. It’s not a big win, all things considered, but it leaves you with a slight glimmer of hope. But really, everything’s fucked and that’s just how things are until something major changes. But The Wire came out 20 years ago now, and highlighted the exact same thing, that the “war on drugs” is pointless and doesn’t work, and despite even presidential approval, what has happened to actually solve these problems? Absolutely nothing. The war on the poor – especially black – people rages on, with no one seeming inclined to change it any time soon – and that’s why We Own This City is so bittersweet. Sure, they get some corrupt cops and that looks good in the paper, but at the end of the day it’s situation normal, all fucked up. Why rock the boat? Why deal with issues that will cost a lot of money short term for long term gains? It’s just bad politics. And that’s incredibly sad.
The writing and acting is solid, but you would expect nothing less – it’s not without reason The Wire is still classed as one of the best TV shows ever made – but I much prefer We Own This City. While both shows are hard to swallow, We Own This City is perhaps easier to digest. It’s only six episodes, after all. Six riveting, heartbreaking, infuriating, thought-provoking, frustrating, excellent episodes that you hope will inspire some kind of change in its home country, but you know it probably won’t.
5 out of 5 row houses.