HBO's 'We Own This City' is the closest fans will get to a sequel of 'The Wire'
Updated May 3, 2022 at 1:04 PM ET
When the question comes, David Simon answers plainly: Is the new, six-episode limited series, We Own This City – developed by him and longtime producing partner George Pelecanos for HBO – something of a sequel to The Wire?
"This is the closest thing you're going to get to a sequel," Simon says, laughing cagily.
For fans of critically-acclaimed, groundbreaking police drama The Wire, hearing that Simon and Pelecanos were teaming up to tell a new story for HBO about corrupt cops in Baltimore was a little like hearing Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo were going to make a new movie about the Mafia.
(Full disclosure: As the author of a piece for The BBC analyzing why critics chose The Wire as the best show of the 21st century so far, I am arguably one of those fans.)
When it aired on HBO starting in 2002, The Wire spent five seasons exploring how a host of important institutions were failing a great American city — from labor and politics to education, the media and, of course, police. Simon created the show and brought in Pelecanos as a writer and producer, centering its story on a bold critique of the war on drugs — suggesting it had turned police into an occupying army that bullied black and brown residents in high-crime areas rather than protecting them.
In We Own This City, Pelecanos, Simon and many other Wire alums have reassembled to tell the true story of how an elite squad of Baltimore police officers called the Gun Trace Task Force began stealing money and drugs from criminals and – eventually – even law-abiding citizens.
With the new show, Simon also gets to say something else about the drug war and The Wire.
"You know, we told you so," he says. "We told you where it was headed. We told you...what was valued by this police department and what's not valued when it came to police work. So that's what The Wire showed you. Fifteen years later, along comes the story and says, yeah, it went there, and it's worse."
A fact based story on the futility of the war on drugs
Pelecanos, a renowned crime novelist who also worked with Simon on HBO series like Treme and The Deuce, says he got excited about pulling together old collaborators from The Wire after talking with an executive at the channel about adapting the story from former Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton's book, also called We Own This City.
"The story itself got us jacked up...and it is a completely fact-based dramatization," Pelecanos added, noting they stuck to what they could verify in creating scenes for We Own This City. "Whereas The Wire...some of those folks were based on real people and the issues were real, but [that show] was fiction. [We Own This City] really is a coda to The Wire in the sense that it's Baltimore 15 years later. You might say it's an evolution, but it's really a de-evolution."
Simon was already loosely connected to the book; after reading Fenton's coverage of the task force scandal in The Baltimore Sun newspaper, he called the reporter to connect him with his book agent. He says We Own This City reveals the debilitating legacy from generations of pursuing a fruitless drug war with mass, indiscriminate arrests.
"The guys involved in the task force...they weren't out of the academy when The Wire finished its run [in 2008]," says Simon, himself a former police reporter for The Sun who saw his own books Homicide: Life on the Street and The Corner turned into TV shows interrogating the Baltimore police and drug addiction.
"It's as if the guys who had learned the worst elements of police work from the drug war and had failed to learn how to police properly...they're the ones explaining to the next generation of guys who are now coming on how not to do the job," Simon added.
Police trained to disregard official training
In We Own This City, that dynamic is highlighted through the story of Wayne Jenkins – a star police officer played by The Walking Dead alum Jon Bernthal, with a pretty solid Baltimore accent. Bernthal excels at playing cocky, energetically physical guys with something to prove, so Jenkins – a former Marine seen as a rising star in the BPD – is in his sweet spot.
In the series' first episode, Jenkins is shown giving a speech to new officers as head of the Gun Trace Task Force, telling them that brutality on the street only racks up complaints and negative attention and won't be tolerated in his unit.
But viewers soon learn the truth was very different, as the task force became a repository for officers who had a long list of complaints and problematic behavior in their history. These are officers who were willing to aggressively arrest people, even after protests and prosecutions following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody led to a work slowdown among other cops.
[We Own This City] really is a coda to The Wire in the sense that it's Baltimore 15 years later. You might say it's an evolution, but it's really a de-evolution.
The series' story often jumps back in time, showing Jenkins as young officer learning that what was expected by their superiors and training officers was often very different than the lessons taught in the police academy.
"In the academy, they teach you constitutional policing...then as soon as they go out, [a superior says] 'Everything you just learned is b***s***, this is Baltimore,'" Pelecanos says. "We talked to police who told us that's exactly what happened to them. They were told to throw out everything they had learned that was correct...It's kind of a tragedy."
Viewers see a sad progression of tactics. First, officers arrest everyone on the streets in high crime areas, hoping to bring murder and shooting rates down just by clearing everyone out. Eventually, members of Jenkins' task force wind up stopping people on trumped-up pretexts to search their vehicles, take whatever cash they find and even take their apartment keys to ransack their homes.
HBO's We Own This City tells the story with a page-turning intensity that feels a bit like watching a novel on TV – a refinement of the storytelling techniques Pelecanos, Simon and many of their crew learned on The Wire.
Pelecanos says his secret weapon is one you might not expect from a TV producer: listening.
"I always liked to get the details right when I was writing books, so the main thing is talking to people and listening to people," he says. "That's where I always felt [other TV shows] sort of fell down; they weren't listening or showing people respect...even while we were shooting, we had people in the neighborhood who would come on the set and talk to us and we listened to them."
Even while we were shooting, we had people in the neighborhood who would come on the set and talk to us, and we listened to them.
One telling detail from the series: Courts were shown struggling to seat juries, as large numbers of potential jurors admitted they or someone they knew had been in situations where police lied about their conduct.
Simon sums up the show's lessons tartly: "We have to end the drug war. We have to change the mission, because it's not policing, it's attacking...All this mass incarceration accomplished exactly nothing. But it did destroy law enforcement and corrupted it. So we have to change that. And until we do, nothing good is going to happen."
Actors from 'The Wire' show up in new roles
Fans of The Wire will see a lot of familiar faces in the cast of We Own This City.
Jamie Hector, who played ruthless drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield in The Wire, surfaces on We Own This City as Sean Suiter, an officer who finds it difficult to move on after serving on the Task Force. Delaney Williams, who played sarcastic homicide squad supervisor Jay Landsman on The Wire, is Baltimore's beleaguered police commissioner on the new show.
And, like The Wire, We Own This City doesn't tell a typical TV cop show story. Because, even though the series details how Wayne Jenkins and his task force are exposed, the conditions which allowed their corruption to fester still remain.
"Most network television talk shows are about making the viewer feel good in the end," Pelecanos says. "In other words, the perpetrators get caught. They're brought to justice. In a way, it's a fascistic notion that you're telling America, if you do something wrong, you're going to get punished. We don't do that. It'll sound grandiose to say we tell the truth, but that's what we're trying to do."
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