'We Own This City' review: Creator of 'The Wire' returns with gripping new cop show
We Own This City explores the use of power through authority by those without a moral compass.
Launching on Sky Atlantic and NOW 7 June, it uses Justin Fenton’s We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruptions as the gospel of what went down in Baltimore following the fatal arrest of Freddie Gray — a twenty five year old African-American, who got detained for the legal possession of a knife by Baltimore’s police department, but then sustained fatal injuries before reaching a holding cell.
More than anything, this dramatisation created by The Wire’s David Simon and George Pelecanos, depicts a place of immoral authority. One cloaked in constitutional principles forever insulated from culpability, where ethical behaviour was jettisoned in favour of ulterior motives.
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A city where political advancement superseded basic human rights when it came to policing gun crime.
Watch a trailer for We Own This City
It is also a drama in which Jon Bernthal (Wayne Jenkins) fits right in, as the morally questionable central protagonist amongst a multitude of possibilities. As Jenkins, he heads up a task force specifically created to keep firearms off the streets using any means necessary.
A degree of power which sees him exploit Baltimore families in less affluent areas, whilst extorting monies from small time hoods and keeping any contraband.
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Ever since Bernthal hit mainstream audiences in The Walking Dead and then The Punisher, he has managed to humanise characters who seemed beyond help.
Especially with Frank Castle, who the actor defined through grief, willpower and bloody-minded machismo. Shredding his way through all comers, yet still managing to keep audiences on side despite the ever increasing body count.
However, in We Own This City flashbacks and present day exchanges shape a narrative which never feels straight forward. As corrupt cops, government officials and FBI investigators try to fathom how each puzzle piece fits together. A situation which may lead to pens and paper being pulled out by audiences wishing to keep track of connections.
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Other puzzle pieces include Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku) from the department of justice, who is seeking to uncover inconsistencies within police procedure, through rigorous questioning and judicious digging. Allowing the actor, familiar to some from Loki and Lovecraft Country, to bring some real depth to the role.
In the other corner audiences are confronted by Daniel Hersl (Josh Charles), a blunt instrument in police uniform, who intimidates and coerces people out of professional pride to bolster arrest records. With roles in The Good Wife and Masters of Sex amongst others, this feels like a conscious departure for Charles into uncharted territory. One that he pulls off with apparent ease, by breathing life into this repulsive racist with zero compassion.
Comparisons in a cinematic sense would include Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning and more pertinently Antoine Faqua’s Training Day. These films each dealt with an inherent prejudice towards specific people if not always the colour of their skin. For comparative performances to Josh Charles, audiences might also consider Will Poulter in Detroit and Sam Rockwell from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
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In each case there is such a fundamental casting against type being portrayed on screen, that each project benefits hugely from taking that risk. Not only offering the actor in question something of substance to embody, but also providing a certifiable villain for audiences to despise.
Something which Josh Charles not only delivers in We Own This City, but does so without resorting to stereotypical behaviour quirks, or overt acts of violence.
Over the running time this show also manages to offer up a story which circumvents traditional structural tricks, by highlighting specific moments in time as jumping off points. Scenes are stylishly merged together, while dialogue feels casual and almost off the cuff.
This approach not only acting as a throwback to The Wire, which thrived on balancing numerous narrative threads simultaneously, but actively engages audiences without feeling rushed.
This is a series which feels meticulous in its construction, yet flexible enough to encompass all the character arcs without being bloated by excessive exposition. In the coming months there will be other shows hitting UK screens which share some similarities, but those will be few and far between.
With We Own This City, David Simon and George Pelecanos have created something of substance, which speaks to a moment in time defined by an absolute abuse of power.
An abuse which was instigated, approved and encouraged by those in high office, who believed artillery not attitudes were the root cause of the riots which followed Freddie Gray’s death in 2015.
We Own This Night is on Sky Atlantic and streaming on NOW from 7 June.