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We Own This City, Sky Atlantic review - 'The Wire' creator David Simon is back on the Baltimore beat | reviews, news & interviews

We Own This City, Sky Atlantic review - 'The Wire' creator David Simon is back on the Baltimore beat

We Own This City, Sky Atlantic review - 'The Wire' creator David Simon is back on the Baltimore beat

Gruelling saga of institutionalised police corruption

Cop and robber: Jon Bernthal as Wayne Jenkins

It has been 14 years since The Wire, David Simon’s labyrinthine epic about crime and policing in Baltimore, reached the end of the line. Yet it seems he couldn’t let it lie, because he’s back on the Baltimore beat with We Own This City (made by HBO, showing on Sky Atlantic). This time, the series is based on the eponymous non-fiction book by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, with crime novelist George Pelecanos sharing the “Creator” credit with Simon.

This is not going to be a relaxing or easy watch, and flopping out on the sofa with a large glass of something mellow is not the ideal way to keep up with the fine detail of the plot, or plots. For a start, it jumps between multiple time-frames, with the opening episode bouncing between 2017 and 2015, while episode two opens in the long-ago year of 2003. The show’s encyclopaedic scope roves over police and thieves (these categories are frequently interchangeable) as well as the social and political climate in which they operate. Overshadowing the action is the real-life death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in 2015 of injuries sustained while he was being transported in a police van. The event provoked riots in Baltimore. As one seasoned cop remarks in the show: “Cultural sensitivity training? Fuck that. This is Baltimore.”

Episode one opened with what seemed very like a parody of the old roll-call device from Hill Street Blues, where Sgt Esterhaus says “let’s be careful out there”. Here, though, the avuncular Esterhaus is replaced by the bullish, egotistical Sgt Wayne Jenkins, who, as we will learn, heads up Baltimore’s elite Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF). The Task Force gets guns off the street, but their performance is merely cosmetic, massaging the crime statistics so the mayor can look good in his bid to become the Governor. The appalling trail of corruption and illegality the GTTF dragged in its wake is at the core of Fenton’s book.

We Own This City, Sky Atlantic Dominating the rostrum in front of his assembled police officers like Larry Olivier doing Henry V, Jenkins delivers a spectacular diatribe about the use of force by the cops. “If we lose the fight, we lose the streets,” he warns, but goes on to caution that merely beating up suspects isn’t the way to go. Instead, officers must “use the law”, understand the nature of their authority and make their case convincingly. Use brawn but add a bit of brain, seems to be the message.

Jenkins is brilliantly played by Jon Bernthal as a barely-controllable force convinced of his own indestructability, his weird staring eyes, unnerving facial contortions and sing-song voice suggesting a messiah complex possibly boosted by artificial stimulants. However, his ride comes to an abrupt halt when he’s arrested, with considerable force, by a group of burly officers. Jenkins can’t believe it. “Do you know who I am?” he demands incredulously. The full extent of his crimes and misdemeanours is yet to be revealed.

Meanwhile we go behind the scenes with Baltimore’s Office of Civil Rights, where Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku, pictured above) has to deal with an endless litany of complaints about the violence, racism and corruption of the police. In the sinister looking-glass world of Baltimore policing, a known thug like officer Daniel Hersl (Josh Charles, unrecognisable from his days in The Good Wife) is allowed to continue on the beat merely because he “gets out of his car and makes arrests”.

This is a dense, downbeat show that doesn’t make any concessions to the viewer. Sometimes it feels like a civics lesson as characters rather ploddingly fill in the background of crime and corruption, while the time-jumping narrative is frequently exasperating. Try it if you feel strong enough.

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