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HBO's We Own This City is its own compelling story in limited series form, differing from The Wire in both intention and execution

  • "It is impossible to watch We Own This City without thinking of The Wire," says Jen Chaney of the HBO Baltimore police corruption limited series from The Wire's David Simon and George Pelecanos, based on Justin Fenton's book of the same name. But We Own This City is different. "While the previous series showed us both good police officers and ones who did not always act in the best interests of the public, the new show is explicitly an indictment of policing gone all the way off the rails," says Chaney. "That’s reflective of actual events in post-Freddie Gray Baltimore as well as the evolution in public consideration of policing during the Black Lives Matter movement. We Own This City isn’t a sequel to The Wire, but it certainly feels like a complement, one that quickly encourages us to be suspicious of every cop we encounter rather than warm to them despite their flaws. There are few, if any, Bunk Morelands or Lester Freamons in this Baltimore." Chaney adds: "Arriving twenty years after The Wire, We Own This City presents more pronounced versions of the same old problems. It offers no answers to all the questions it raises and does not attempt to end on any kind of pat, hopeful note."


    • We Own This City is 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," says James Poniewozik. "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."
    • We Own This City is careful about who gets the lion’s share of the attention and when they get it: "It would be simple for series creators David Simon and George Pelecanos to present their adaptation of Justin Fenton’s book as a six-episode origin story of a mistake, to track Sergeant Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal) from his early days onward, as he ascends the ranks of the BPD and assumes the top post at the GTTF," says Steve Greene. "But it’s telling that We Own This City instead takes a more circuitous, non-linear approach. Viewers aren’t being automatically aligned with dirty cops who came upon a preexisting crater of professional misconduct and grabbed shovels to dig even deeper. Instead, anyone who commits to these six hours is put in the shoes of a detective, presented with disparate fragments of a department-wide whole and being guided along the path to piece them together."
    • We Own This City is a ruminative show with a multitude of moving parts — too many, in fact: "At times, in its piecing together of the Rubik’s Cube of clues, We Own This City maneuvers like True Detective season 1, but with far less dexterity," says Robert Daniels. "The second investigation involves FBI agents interrogating smart-mouth former cops Momodu 'G Money' Gondo (McKinley Belcher III), Jemell Rayam (Darrell Britt-Gibson), and Maurice Ward (Rob Brown) in prison. Each offers a different piece in the puzzle of Jenkins. In a show consumed with putting the system on trial, none of the actors are allowed the range to stand out. Instead, they’re cogs. And maybe that’s the point; these disgraced officers are just a few of the many bad apples. That, however, doesn’t make for captivating television — it only distances us from the complex mystery at the heart of the series."
    • We Own This City is a stinging multi-perspective exposé about how small- and large-scale corruption parasitically feed off each other: The miniseries "comprehends the motivations of its many players while nonetheless doling out sympathy and scorn to those who most deserve it," says Nick Schager. "The messy intersections of greed, ambition and self-preservation are rife throughout, and as if to further suggest the knottiness of this tale, Simon recounts it in non-chronological fashion, leaping forward and backward between various moments in Jenkins’ reign of terror, Steele’s stabs at completing her mission, FBI agent Erika Jensen (Dagmara Domińczyk) and her BPD colleague John Sieracki’s (Don Harvey) investigation into—and questioning of—Jenkins, Gondo, Rayam and others, and Suiter’s attempts to keep himself clean despite his own prior interactions with Jenkins. Guided by recurring snapshots of Jenkins’ police logs and buoyed by a sterling cast that includes a number of The Wire alums, the series deftly tackles its saga from a variety of captivating angles."
    • What’s striking is how neatly the real events depicted in We Own This City fit in neatly with the stories The Wire tackled: "The project feels a little messy in the early going, but the pieces come together in a compelling way, illustrating the deep roots of police excesses and the elusiveness of the political will to achieve genuine solutions," says Brian Lowry, adding: “We Own This City doesn’t reach the level that The Wire did. Yet in terms of bringing a sharp dramatic eye to big-city policing, Simon and company pretty much own this genre."
    • We Own This City gives Jon Bernthal one of his most substantial roles to date, and he nails it: "He has that strangest of dialects, the Baltimore accent, down cold (listen closely to the way he says 'pro-moa-ted,' or pronounces the affectionate 'hun' like the last name of Kate Hudson’s mom), as well as the dick-swinging swagger of a rock star cop," says Jason Bailey. "But it’s not just surface tics; there’s a marvelous scope to the performance, as his character swings from nervous rookie to hot-dogging king shit to scared, trapped punk. He has a few moments of desperation that are quite revealing, chief among them one early in the second episode, just after his arrest, as he tells a prison guard about how they must have realized their mistake by now, that “phone calls are being made,” repeating the story he tells himself as if that might eventually make it true."
    • We Own This City is great, but its hampered by its fractured chronology: “City’s biggest flaw, one of the few it shares with other true-crime dramas, is a fractured chronology that emphasizes cleverness over comprehension," says Joshua Alston. "With this much happening at once, all the onscreen datelines in the world aren’t enough to avert the sense of being unmoored from time. But that may be a quibble for a show like City, which is inspired by a type of true crime so pervasive and deep-rooted that only the tools and tactics evolve over time."
    • Although We Own This City is addictive and sure to be devoured by fans of The Wire, it does suffer from two nagging issues: "There are time-jumps across 11 years in just six episodes," says Terry Terrones. "Plotlines start to coalesce by Episode 3, but many will likely find the first two episodes disorienting. We Own This City also lacks a main protagonist. To be sure, it has a lead in Bernthal. But unlike Tony Soprano or Walter White, viewers aren’t going to root for the bad guy in this series. You know Wayne Jenkins will get caught, and he deserves to be caught. But with no clear hero (or antihero) leading the charge, and with only the eventually effective criminal justice system, it feels like a program that is missing a vital puzzle piece. And yet, even though the show has some issues, I found myself captivated by the story of how a criminal justice system failed its citizens. Provocative, powerful, and with first-rate performances, We Own This City is the next generation of The Wire fans have long craved."
    • Jamie Hector was surprised by how well-documented Justin Fenton's book was: “When I read the book, it blew me away, and it blew me away because it’s like, ‘OK, this has been happening. This is nothing new,'” says Hector. “But it was to the degree that these guys did it, and then it was the source material that Justin was able to capture and people that he was able to interview — and the fact that he was able to pull in that they were investigated, and wiretapped and tracked. Now you’re like, ‘Oh, well, so all of this is bonafide true…You’re doing all of this under the badge.’ So that really surprised me. Just the fact that it was so well documented, and also that they paid the price for it.”
    • David Simon, George Pelecanos, director Reinaldo Marcus Green and star Jon Bernthal discuss We Own This City: "This came about in a one-two punch," says Simon. "I read the stories contemporaneously that Justin Fenton was writing — he had my old gig at the Sun at the time — and I thought, “There’s a book in here. And so I actually called Justin and I hooked him up with my book agent. And I said, 'We’ve reached a level of dystopia in the drug war that is fresh and this scandal, it has legs and it’s got to be written.' And so that’s all I was thinking about. I wasn’t thinking about television or dramatizing it. I was just thinking, journalistically, this needs to be a book. But after I hooked him up with my agent and they got a contract, I let it be. Lo and behold, about a year later, here comes George Pelecanos." Pelecanos adds: "Kary Antholis, an executive at HBO, called me and said, 'Read this manuscript and let me know what you think. Maybe you’d like to adapt it as a miniseries.' I thought there was a lot there to talk about. And then I said, 'I’ll do it if I can bring in my partners, David Simon and Nina Noble, and a couple of The Wire writers as a karmic return to Baltimore.' And that’s how it came about."
    • We Own This City flips the David Simon-George Pelecanos dynamic: In their past work, from The Wire to Treme to The Deuce, Simon was the lead guy. With We Own This City, Pelecanos is what Simon calls “first among equals.” “George was on set literally every second of every single day,” adds Bernthal. “This clearly was enormously important to him.” There’s a reason for that meticulousness. “I sweat as much blood writing a script as I do writing a novel," says Pelecanos. "A lot of novelists don’t. A lot of novelists don’t make it as screenwriters because of that, and also because they don’t really like working with people.”
    • Simon says it was important We Own This City show the full spectrum of police officers: “If you live by the mantra that, ‘ACAB,’ all cops are bastards, or you live by the mantra of Back the Blue, you’re probably not going to be particularly satisfied with some parts of this mini-series,” says Simon. “And you’re probably not going to be particularly useful to ever solving any of the real problems because all cops aren’t bastards. You can’t always Back the Blue. It comes down to a very fundamental need to address the system and what has happened with law enforcement. And what’s happened with the drug war and mass incarceration.”
    • Pelecanos didn't want We Own This City to be Season 6 of The Wire -- or a show about dirty cops: “Neither of us wanted to do a show about dirty cops. It’s been done before, and it’s been done well,” says Pelecanos. “What we really wanted to discuss with the show is the why of it. How can something like this happen?” Meanwhile, director Reinaldo Marcus Green -- coming off of directing Will Smith in Oscar Best Picture-nominated King Richard -- said he wanted to capture the humanity of every character, including the police officers, , for whom he has “a lot of admiration and respect.” “I don’t think anyone signs up to be a police officer to do the things they did in the GTTF. I think most people sign up with the best intentions, then get sucked into what is a giant institutional problem,” says Green. “My job was to treat everyone as complex human beings and not reduce them to just bad guys.”
    • Jon Bernthal spoke to the real imprisoned former Baltimore Police Sgt. Wayne Jenkins: “It’s enormously nuanced. It’s enormously complicated,” says Bernthal, who also went on ride-alongs with former Gun Trace Task Force members. “He really had this chameleon-like personality, and it’s that kind of charisma and that ability to shape-shift and speak in completely different dialects that draws people to him. I think he’s a highly manipulative person.”
    • Bernthal says We Own This City respects the victims and the cops: "I think if you're going to do it this is the group of people to do it with," he says. "This is the city to do it in, with these people. I really believe that we told this story with the city of Baltimore, for the city of Baltimore and by the city of Baltimore. I feel like there was such reverence and respect to the folks that this story was about, to the victims, but also to the BPD and the good folks that still are on that job. And I got to, it's my job." Bernthal adds: "To be honest with you, with this project in particular, this checked every single box. It was working with heroes, working with people I deeply respect and wanted to get in the box with. And it also covers issues that are enormously important to me, near and dear to my heart, things that I'm fascinated by, troubled by, has caused enormous amounts of pain in my life. And I felt like this was an opportunity to explore these issues and dive into the gray, dive into the wound, explore them with all the nuance that these issues deserve because so much of the discourse around these issues in this country right now is just being led by the polls."

    TOPICS: We Own This City, HBO, The Wire, David Simon, George Pelecanos, Jon Bernthal, Reinaldo Marcus Green