Review by Sean Boelman
If David Simon knows how to tell a story about one thing, it is the city of Baltimore. His claim to fame was creating and writing The Wire, one of the most acclaimed shows in all of television history, and while his newest outing (that he executive produced and partially wrote), We Own This City, is unlikely to earn the same level of buzz, its palpable anger works quite well.
The series explores the 2017 controversy involving the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force and how it revealed a web of corruption surrounding it. It is based on the book by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, effectively weaving a morally complex tale of law enforcement and abuse of power.
There is no denying that the series is messy — far more so than many of HBO’s prestige projects — but that messiness is a direct result of the frustration that the filmmakers have with Baltimore PD. The show cuts between the offenses, the trial, and flashbacks showing the long history of corruption that these characters perpetrated, and while it’s easy to tell what’s in the past and the present, some streamlining would have been nice.
The series should definitely be praised for pulling no punches regarding its political themes. It asks the dirty questions of how (or even if) the system can be fixed by diagnosing the very deep ways in which it is broken. But one of the flaws of the writing seems to be that it is made to provoke people who aren’t already thinking about this topic to think about it more deeply. For those who are already in the know on the issues of the criminal justice system, it’s a tad rudimentary.
There are some issues with the characterization as well. The series does an excellent job of making many of the main characters deplorable and completely irredimible, but alas, it is governed by the laws of narrative. The audience needs someone to root for, and instead of going with a perspective that would have worked, like the victims of the Baltimore PD — or even the investigators prosecuting them, who have a small part — the series ends up coming dangerously close to making a “not all cops” argument.
Still, Jon Bernthal’s performance is without a doubt one of the best that you will see on television this year. The way in which he brings this detestable character to life is disgusting and terrifying. The writing makes it feel like this should be an ensemble piece, but Bernthal’s performance is so commanding and grotesque that it consistently steals the show.
The grittiness and brutality of the series are also a double-edged sword. While it is good to see a show being very open about the atrocities being committed by law enforcement, one has to wonder if the graphic extent to which this series takes it was completely necessary. It could be argued that the series is capitalizing on trauma, and it would be hard to refute that claim.
We Own This City is far from perfect, but its merits ultimately outweigh its shortcomings. It’s an infuriating show, but given the subject matter that it is dealing with and the team that made it, one could expect no less.
We Own This City debuts on HBO on April 25 at 9pm with additional episodes airing subsequent Mondays. All six episodes reviewed.