Reviews · TV

‘We Own This City’ is a Dutiful Take On Police Corruption

Jon Bernthal stars in this true story about police corruption from the makers of The Wire.
We Own This City Review Hbo
By  · Published on April 22nd, 2022

Twenty years ago, David Simon created The Wire, a sprawling and studied look at Baltimore through the eyes of cops, criminals, kids, and others. Often called the best TV show of all time, The Wire feels like a great American novel made for the screen. Simon’s latest series, made with frequent collaborator George Pelecanos, feels like it could have been better off as a book.

We Own This City already is a book, actually. Written by the Baltimore Sun’s Justin Fenton, the 2021 investigative work unpacks the details of a corruption scandal that rocked the city just a few years earlier. In 2018, eight police officers were convicted of federal charges in a case that exposed rampant crime among the city’s Gun Trace Task Force. The stories revealed under oath were shocking: the officers were reportedly essentially robbers with badges and weapons, pulling money, drugs, and firearms off of strangers to turn a profit. In one harrowing bit of testimony, an officer also revealed that they carried toy guns, in case they accidentally hurt or killed unarmed civilians and needed to plant a weapon on them.

This is the story towards which Simon turns his meticulous eye at the outset of HBO’s We Own This City. Together, he and his writer’s room–full of The Wire alums, plus newcomer Dwight Watkins–put a magnifying glass to the task force. The series is especially concerned with Sgt. Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal), who headed up the task force and who the show portrays as its dirtiest cop. In a time-jumping narrative based largely around the testimonies of various task force members, a story of a broken system steadily emerges.

Densely built yet clearly executed, the show reads like a piece of long-form journalism played out on screen. It often feels recitative, like a documentary recreation or a direct reading of a primary source. As a result, it may be Simon’s most emotionally distant work to date. While shows like The Deuce and Treme possessed a certain distinct timbre, and The Wire built up a city with a strong beating heart, We Own This City feels more dutiful than artful.

We Own This City is all about building a case, but by the end, it leaves me wondering: who is it building one for? The series ostensibly aims to bury viewers under the depth and breadth of its subjects’ corruption, to the point that we have no choice but to accept the reality of the foundationally flawed policing system. Except: what if we already have?

The show uses real footage in its opening credits and invokes real-life police brutality victim Freddie Gray’s name early and often. Both of these bold choices seem to imply it’s intended for a crowd who’s at least tangentially up to speed on the Black Lives Matter movement. And yet, its ideologies seem to lag behind current conversations about policing. We Own This City repeatedly gestures toward the War on Drugs as the point at which the previously pure-of-heart act of policing became hopeless–as if systemic racism and violence never existed in the profession before 1971. If its purpose is at least slightly didactic, as it seems to be, We Own This City also makes an odd choice by focusing on cops who face significant punishment for their misconduct, a rarity in America.

Despite obviously condemning the cops at its core, the series also stays almost entirely within their viewpoint, failing to explore the fallout of their actions from the perspective of the people they harmed. It does, however, give audience members a surrogate in the form of Department of Justice civil rights attorney Nicole (Wunmi Mosaku). Mosaku, always excellent, gives a controlled yet powerful performance here. Unfortunately, writers saddle her with a script that often involves verbally connecting dots for viewers and all but gaping at the levels of corruption she uncovers. She even gets to tie a bow on the series with a pat monologue about how and when the policing profession went wrong.

We Own This City has plenty going for it on paper. The series is laser-precise in its structure, relaying disturbing facts about the Gun Trace Task Force via a steady drip of information that builds to a crashing wave of a comedown for all involved. Bernthal does well with the material at hand; he’s all scumbag bravado and amoral single-mindedness. King Richard filmmaker Reinaldo Marcus Green directs all six episodes competently if not memorably. Yet in practice, the series is oddly wooden, as if made in response to a directorial FAQ: what would a David Simon show about Baltimore policing look like in 2022?

The answer, it seems, is imperfect. The show’s talented cast and shocking plot compel, but its dry factual narrative and blind-spot-heavy examination of policing make for an ultimately unsatisfying viewing experience.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)