When you walk through the garden, You gotta watch your back
Well, I beg your pardon, Walk the straight and narrow track
If you walk with Jesus, He's gonna save your soul
You gotta keep the devil, Way down in the hole
That’s all just good life advice. It is also the opening lyrics to the theme to David Simon’s HBO show The Wire. It seems appropriate to open every conversation or consideration of Simon’s new HBO drama We Own This City with the theme to The Wire as I cannot imagine there will be a viewer watching this who isn’t viewing it with some Wire-sized glasses.
We Own This City is swimming in The Wire’s DNA. This is another HBO production with David Simon writing this alongside his The Wire collaborator George Pelecanos. As with the best David Simon productions, the focus of the series is on the police of Baltimore. The look and feel of the show is also just a stones throw away from The Wire.
This is a six-part limited series based on Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton’s non-fiction book of the same name which focused on a group of bad cops who were accused of shaking down citizens for money and pocketing it, lying to investigators, filing false court paperwork, and making fraudulent overtime claims. Police stories and bureaucracy - we are firmly in David Simon’s wheelhouse here.
Just as we are watching this show through the prism of The Wire, we are also watching with the shadow of the police murder of George Floyd very much looming over the production. We Own This City absolutely knows that this is a shadow that looms large and it completely leans into it. One of the great details of the show is that at every encounter the cops are having on the street, they are now surrounded by African American citizens recording it on their phones. It makes it difficult to be a skungy cop, yet somehow the cops in this story make it work for them. Further magnifying the surveillance and scrutiny of the cops is the direction by King Richard helmer Reinardo Marcus Green. Regularly he switches visual perspective on the show to depict scenes as seen through security cameras. The regular camera lens at times even taking on the form and function of a security camera at multiple times through the show.
As with other David Simon productions, this is a show that has a firm mix of strong character actors and new performers to the screen. I’ve seen just the first two episodes of this where much of the focus was on Jon Bernthal, an actor you have seen in almost everything from the past five years, but notably recently in the aforementioned King Richard. Also on screen is The Good Wife’s Josh Charles playing a very dirty cop, completely removed of the effortless charisma that seems to power Charles through so many of his on-screen roles to date. If he isn’t Emmy nominated for this, I’ll be very surprised. Beverly Hills 90210’s Gabrielle Cateris also pops her head up in this, as does The Wire’s Herc Dominick Lombardozzi. Jamie Hector, also seen in The Wire as Marlo Stanfield, is a major player in this - he’s playing a role removed from The Wire, but almost identical to the one he played for seven seasons on Bosch - a show run by The Wire writer and good friend of David Simon Eric Overmyer.
This show isn’t as entertaining as Simon’s work on shows like The Wire. It is much more in line with his quasi-reportage series Show Me a Hero. But viewers will be enthralled in the show by the end of the first season. To be frank, David Simon hasn’t displayed many new tricks since The Wire. He’s a meat and potatoes writer who approaches his work as honestly and forthright as he can. But viewers know what they are in for here. And as with his previous work, he has attracted an incredible cast who absolutely step up and deliver career best performances.
We Own This City isn’t an easy show to watch, but it is thoroughly rewarding.
We Own This City is streaming now on HBO Max in the US and Binge in Australia.
[This review was written for the Screen Watching podcast, available now on your favourite podcast app.]