‘We Own This City’: A Perfect Show for All Those Who Miss ‘The Wire’

David Simon’s brilliant new HBO police drama is like a belated sequel to ‘The Wire’ – if you’ve seen that beloved Baltimore series, that is

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Jon Bernthal as Sgt. Wayne Jenkins in “We Own This City.”
Jon Bernthal as Sgt. Wayne Jenkins in “We Own This City.”
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

Now that we’re about to have a new Twitter overlord in the form of Elon Musk – whose main qualification for the job appears to be that he randomly calls people pedophiles – this may be the perfect time to introduce some new rules to the site.

I should note that I am not best-qualified to do this, since I tweet as frequently as a stuffed bird. Still, Musk himself provided us with a perfect example of everything that’s wrong with the site last month when he tweeted: “The woke mind virus is making Netflix unwatchable.”

That tweet received over 300,000 likes, yet it was almost as laughable as the price of a Tesla Roadster. For starters, how much time has Musk actually spent on Netflix to reach this startling conclusion? Isn’t he rather busy sending giant penises into space – and no, that wasn’t a reference to U.S. billionaire and frequent SpaceX customer Jared Isaacman – and trying to make his electric car fly out of showrooms?

How au fait can he really be with the goings-on in “Bridgerton” and “Lupin,” although I’m prepared to accept that he will be all over a show called “Stranger Things?”

Netflix may be beset by problems right now – plummeting subscriptions; reported internal feuding; a dearth of big new series to replace the likes of “House of Cards,” “13 Reasons Why,” “Money Heist” and “Ozark” – but a bout of the “woke mind virus” is not one of them.

Elon Musk's Twitter account. Space explorer, electric car pioneer and self-proclaimed expert on Netflix.

Mind you, this “woke” accusation about Netflix is one I increasingly see on websites like IMDb – which is one of the few places you can find English-language comments for some of the streaming site’s more obscure foreign-language shows, like “Dirty Lines.”

“Enough already,” one user review fumed recently about the 1980s-set Dutch drama set in the world of phone sex. “Netflix shoving and forcing these woke ideas down your throat. I want to be entertained, not poisoned with snowflake ideas.” (Is that you, Elon?)

I should add that I don’t actually understand what “woke mind virus” means and, more importantly, whether it’s contagious – which probably proves that I don’t spend that much time on Twitter.

Ah yes, back to Twitter. Here are my ideas for how to improve the site: One, shut down the replies function. Two, let the users decide who gets the coolest Twitter handles via a public vote.

I can think of only one person who truly deserves the handle “@zerofucksgiven,” for instance – and that is not the random person in Antwerp who currently possesses it.

David Simon.

And that tweeter is veteran TV scribe David Simon – current Twitter handle @AoDespair – in recognition of his always-acerbic tweets over the past decade, where he has dropped more f-bombs than in an entire season of “The Wire” and introduced words like “shitmuzzle” and “fuckbonnet” into the Twittersphere (but not Merriam-Webster, alas).

A few recent examples. Discussing Rudy Giuliani’s shameful appearance on Fox’s “The Masked Singer, he wrote: “Everyone in the entertainment industry who made this moment happen needs to douse each other in gasoline and start throwing lit matches.” (Come on Dave, tell us how you really feel.)

And when someone tweeted that Vladimir Putin is going after neo-Nazis in Ukraine and goaded Simon with the question “You like Nazis?” he responded: “We’re not rubes. That agitprop and the rim of Putin’s ass is there for you and your kind.”

‘A dirty game’

I’ll be writing about Simon’s most famous show in June, which is when the 20th anniversary falls of “The Wire” debuting on HBO. He’s enjoyed a long, fruitful relationship with the U.S. cable giant dating back to “The Corner” in 2000. And shockingly, I’d not seen a single one of his shows until last week.

I know, I know, unacceptable – a TV critic who hasn’t seen “The Wire,” “Treme,” “Show Me a Hero” and “The Plot Against America” is like a virgin working as a sex counselor or a vegan working as a food taster for McDonald’s. I blame some of those omissions on being a film journalist in the aughts. Also, I had a young family at the time and only had the energy for “Lost,” live sports and Pixar movies (for some reason, my kids get offended when I refer to this time as “the wilderness years”).

So, at the risk of being labeled the Benjamin Button of TV critics, I’ve just started my own little David Simon retrospective with his latest work: “We Own This City,” an adaptation of the 2021 nonfiction book of the same name by Justin Fenton.

Simon developed the series with regular partner-in-crime George Pelecanos, and fans of the duo will know better than this critic what to expect: America’s social ills laid bare; corrupt cops proving just as lawless as actual criminals; exposing what happens when you mix policing with politics; and lots and lots of Baltimore – the run-down, battered city which serves as a battlefield for the government’s long-running, long-losing war on drugs.

Has there ever been a better marriage of source material and adaptees than Simon and Pelecanos working on a true-crime police story set in Baltimore? In fact, it may not be bettered unless it someday emerges that Queen Elizabeth II did some rewrite work on season 4 of “The Crown.”

Pelecanos’ best-selling crime novels revolve around corrupt cops in Washington, D.C., and Simon, of course, is Mr. Baltimore. He previously worked on the same paper as Justin Fenton: the Baltimore Sun, where they both covered the police beat.

Indeed, it was Simon who suggested to Fenton that he write a book tying up all of his reporting about a major police corruption trial in the city. Which is the backstory behind this gripping six-part limited series.

And all I can say is that if Simon’s previous work is as magnificent as “City,” I’m going to be spending even less time on Twitter over the next few months as I devour his back catalog.

A scene from HBO's “We Own This City.”

In his book, Fenton outlines early on what the story is all about: a group of Baltimore police officers, led by Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, who were charged in 2017 with various counts of racketeering after brazenly acting like the law only applied to the poor souls they were nabbing. “In Baltimore,” Fenton writes, “it was a dirty game in which the ends justified the means” and where police brutality was not so much a bug in the system as a feature.

Jenkins and his team in the Gun Trace Task Force – a plainclothes unit known to locals as “knockers” or “jumpout boys” due to their aggressive tactics – were employed to get drugs and guns off the street. It didn’t matter how they did it, as long as it produced results. Throw in the fact that they were pretty much left unsupervised by their superiors, and this is the almost-inevitable result.

“Bad lieutenant” Jenkins is played by Jon Bernthal – an actor who knows his way around morally conflicted law enforcement officers after playing Shane in several seasons of “The Walking Dead.” This is another charismatic turn by the actor, playing an ex-marine whose integrity is quickly abandoned on the mean streets of Baltimore.

In a wonderful scene at the end of episode 4, during a “team-building” exercise in a bar, he tells his partners in crime: “These [police] bosses think I’m the golden boy. They think Wayne Jenkins can do no wrong. We can literally do whatever the fuck we want, you understand? [Pause] We own this city.”

“I swear, I had nothing to do with Giuliani appearing on ‘The Masked Singer.’” An interrogation scene in “We Own This City.”

Forensic reconstruction of lawlessness

Watching the show and its unsensationalized portrayal of what happens in a world left unchecked, I was reminded of another legendary TV exchange:

Lisa Simpson: “Who will police the police?”

Homer Simpson: “I dunno – Coast Guard?”

Thankfully, there ultimately is a “Coast Guard” on patrol in “We Own This City,” in the form of an FBI public corruption investigation team featuring Special Agent Erika Jensen (Dagmara Dominczyk of “Succession” fame) and her unshowy team.

Indeed, what’s great about the show is that this is not aiming to be “Law and Order: Baltimore.” Instead, expertly directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green – who is having quite the year, given that he previously gave us “King Richard” – this is a complex, forensic reconstruction of lawlessness in the place you least/most expect it (delete according to political persuasion).

It’s tightly told in six multilayered episodes in which we flit between various incidents over the course of 14 years, including the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a Black resident of Baltimore, in custody after sustaining a spinal injury in a police van.

A key addition from the book is a plotline focusing on the investigation into the Baltimore Police Department by the Justice Department’s civil rights division, led by attorney Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku). This allows the show to also focus on political intrigues concerning the city’s police commissioner and mayor, highlighting how violent cops like Daniel Hersl – played by Josh Charles, who is a long way from his law practice in “The Good Wife” – were able to protect and serve only themselves despite being known offenders within the force. But then, this was a police department with an orchard’s worth, rather than just a few, bad apples.

Steele is one of the show’s few composite characters. Another is Treat Williams’ retired Baltimore City detective Brian Grabler, who seemingly gets to channel Simon and Pelecanos, and their known views on America’s war on drugs: “You can’t just blame the cops,” Grabler tells the civil rights attorney. “We serve the politicians, who thrive on being tough on crime.”

I very rarely say this, but I would have liked a few more episodes, in order to spend some time with these rogues away from the police precinct and try to better understand them – or at least see what they did with all of the overtime money and cash they pocketed from crime scenes and elsewhere (I will just quote two memorable words from the show – “midget stripper” – and leave it at that regarding the latter).

Maybe that’s me just being greedy, though, because what ultimately makes “City” so compelling is that we get to see the police officers as flesh-and-blood characters: oftentimes bad, sometimes good, but with no moral judgment attached. This humanization means that when Jenkins vehemently rejects the accusation that he’s a dirty cop, we can see that he genuinely believes that and almost understand his logic.

I was struck by this quote from Pelecanos on the Collider website, which sums up the show’s appeal far better than I can: “We don’t wanna pander to the people who hate all police or who think all police are pricks, or whatever. On the other side of that, we’re not pandering to the thin blue line people either. It’s for people in the middle who want to actually think about the situation and give it deep thought.”

Who will police the police? Well, Simon and Pelecanos are doing a great job of asking all the right questions. Now, where did I put that DVD of “The Plot Against America?”

“We Own This City” is on Hot HBO on Tuesdays at 11 P.M., and is available the same day on Hot and Yes VOD, Cellcom tv, Sting TV and Next TV. In the United States, the second episode airs on HBO and HBO MAX this Monday, until May 30.

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