‘We Own This City’ brings ‘The Wire’ team back to Baltimore for brilliant take on police corruption

Epic yet intimate HBO series depicts real-life cases of cops terrorizing neighborhoods and planting weapons and drugs.

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Greedy Sgt. Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal, right) grabs cash and drugs for himself at his busts on “We Own This City.”

HBO

Comparisons between the six-part, self-contained HBO series “We Own This City” and the landmark HBO classic “The Wire” are inevitable and fair, given the creative team behind “The Wire” returns to the Baltimore crime landscape and the cast includes about a dozen alums from that 2000s-era classic, including Jamie Hector, Jermaine Crawford, Domenick Lombardozzi, Tray Chaney, Susan Rome and Anwan Glover. Once again we’re plunged into a gritty, harsh, realistic and unforgettable depiction of various bad actors and law enforcement institutions clashing in often violent and bloody fashion.

And yet, “We Own This City” is a stand-alone crime drama and is in no way a sequel, spiritual or otherwise, to “The Wire.” Even if you’ve never seen a single episode of David Simon’s seminal series, even if you’re only vaguely familiar with the true-life Baltimore police scandals depicted in this show, director Reinaldo Marcus Green, the writing team that includes Simon and fellow executive producer George Pelecanos (“The Deuce”) and the remarkably talented ensemble cast have done a brilliant job of telling this epic and sprawling and yet intimate and intense story, which is based on the book “We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption” by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton.

With some of the best camerawork I’ve seen in any series this year setting the docudrama tone, “We Own This City” alternates between crisply written, dialogue-driven interior scenes involving investigative strategy sessions and interrogations, witness interviews and behind-the-scenes political maneuvering, and a steady stream of officer-involved incidents ranging from the casual harassment of citizens who have committed the crime of sitting on their front porch at night to cops routinely planting weapons and drugs to intense and intense confrontations that often go sideways and violent. (When there’s a chase scene in this series, it’s a lot closer to the randomly chaotic, often relatively short and dangerous scenes we see on the evening news as opposed to some stylized, “Fast and Furious” cartoon nonsense.)

‘We Own This City’

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A six-part series airing at 8 p.m. Mondays on HBO and streaming afterward on HBO Max.

Using the clever device of computer police logs to establish the time frame, “We Own This City” toggles back and forth between events of the early 2000s and in recent years, with the real-life killing of Freddie Gray in 2015 serving as the flashpoint for the moment when relations between the citizens of Baltimore and the police department sank to an all-time low.

This is primarily the story of the sprawling and stunning 2017 scandal involving the Baltimore Police Department’s elite Gun Trace Task Force, and the rogue cops who abused their authority and terrorized neighborhoods with the cold-blooded greed, fear tactics and ruthless efficiency of mob bosses or drug lords.

At the rotten center of the core is Jon Bernthal’s Wayne Jenkins, a Marine and boxer who joined the squad at the age of 23 as a naïve, gung-ho rookie and quickly became addicted to the power and the ill-gotten riches of the job, especially after he was promoted to sergeant. The scene-stealing Bernthal is all swagger and bluster as Jenkins racks up one major bust after another, all the while siphoning off stacks of cash and drugs for himself and his colleagues, who are either just as corrupt as Jenkins, or too afraid to stand up to him and be labeled a snitch.

We spend much of the time following the members of Jenkins’ team, including the macho Daniel Hershl (Josh Charles), who has a jacket overflowing with citizens’ complaints, as well as Rob Brown’s Maurice Ward, McKinley Belcher III’s Momodu Gondo and Darrell Britt Gibson’s Jemell Rayam, all of whom eventually wind up in prison garb, with some matter-of-factly spilling the beans in the hopes of receiving reduced sentences.

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Department of Justice lawyer Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku) investigates corruption among the Baltimore police.

HBO

Equal attention is focused on FBI agents Erika Jensen (Dagmara Domińczyk) and John Sieracki (Don Harvey); Baltimore County Police Department investigators David McDougall (David Corenswet) and Scott Kilpatrick (Larry Mitchell), and Baltimore Homicide Detective Sean Suiter (Jamie Hector). Wunmi Mosaku’s Nicole Steele, a lawyer in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division, acts as our eyes and ears as one of the few characters in this story who is trying to make some big-picture sense out of the increasingly tense relationship between the police and the people of Baltimore, and the mounting evidence of widespread criminal actions by the very individuals entrusted with protecting and serving the people.

Yes, there are a lot of characters to keep track of, especially in a series spanning a relatively short six episodes, with no plans for a second season. Still, thanks to the clear writing, expert editing and distinctively unique performances, it’s easy to keep pace with “We Own This City,” even as it’s difficult to fathom the breadth of police corruption outlined here—even though we know all of this really happened.

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