David Simon is the greatest television storyteller of all-time. While his masterful series have historically been underseen and undervalued, his unblemished track record of creating uncommonly insightful and sophisticated TV is undeniable. After spending spending two decades as a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun and a non-fiction author (of books such as Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood), Simon has since parlayed his observational and journalistic skills into crafting a variety of extraordinary shows studying alienated communities and the failing institutions that shape fringe social ecosystems.
Simon first gained screenwriting experience working on a series adapted from his first book, Homicide: Life of the Street, a gritty cop show following Baltimore detectives that served as a prototype for his forthcoming urban masterpiece. He later adapted his second book into a miniseries called The Corner, which chronicled the life of an impoverished family amid the open-air drug markets of West Baltimore. Of course, Simon is most well-known for his magnum opus, The Wire, an “anti-cop show” that was, in his words, “a rebellion against all the horseshit police procedurals afflicting American television” at the time.
Through five seasons, the novelistic series dissected the rot of America’s faltering institutions – ranging from policing, labour and governance to the education system and the media. Most impressively, The Wire examined the macro through the micro – the mundane and the minutiae of humanity – detailing the unvarnished lives of the cops, criminals, blue-collar workers, politicians, students, teachers and reporters in Baltimore to explore the ordinary people whose lives have been defined by legislative policies and political forces beyond their control. This type of complex and challenging storytelling has found its way into the many shows Simon has created since then.
Together with co-creator Ed Burns, they followed The Wire by heading overseas for the Iraq War miniseries Generation Kill. Then Simon and Wire writer Eric Overmyer went down to New Orleans for Treme, a drama about jazz musicians, chefs, and more struggling to make their way in the city’s post-Katrina years. Then he re-teamed with former Baltimore Sun colleague, William F. Zorzi, to make Show Me a Hero, a miniseries dramatizing the controversy over desegregated public housing in Yonkers. Subsequently, he and George Pelecanos created The Deuce, a drama about the rise of the porn industry in 1970s New York. Most recently, Simon reunited with Burns for The Plot Against America, an alt-history drama that wondered what if xenophobic populist, Charles Lindbergh, had become president and turned America toward fascism in the 1940s.
Clearly, Simon has spent over a decade examining a wide-range of socio-political topics. But his latest project, We Own This City, brings the acclaimed TV auteur back to a subject near and dear to heart – crime and corruption in Baltimore. Created by Simon and frequent collaborator Pelecanos, this new miniseries is based on the eponymous nonfiction book by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton. Set in the aftermath of the protests over the killing of Freddie Gray (who died in police custody due to spinal cord injuries), the series centers on the inner workings of the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF), which robbed and extorted citizens for years before a federal investigation uncovered their crimes.
The GTTF was headed up by Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, played with swaggering bravado by The Punisher’s Jon Bernthal. The story of Jenkins and his dirty colleagues, alongside the scandal surrounding them, is a complex one, and is told here in great detail. But where a more conventional drama might hold your hand by taking you through the rise and fall of the GTTF chronologically, Simon instead puts you in the shoes of the investigators and prosecutors who are forced to piece events together through run sheets, interviews and police logs. Bernthal’s transformation from clean shaven rookie to bearded tyrant is the series’ showiest portrayal but we also follow many other compelling roles that help put the nonlinear timeline together.
A fantastic Jamie Hector (Marlo from The Wire) plays against type to embody Sean Suiter, a BPD homicide detective with a key perspective on the relationship between the department and the city it’s ostensibly serving. Wunmi Mosaku (Lovecraft Country) plays Nicole Steele, an attorney in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division investigating the culture of the BPD. While others in We Own This City are proxies into individual parts of the machinery – building a racketeering case, securing a conviction, juicing arrest stats, leaching the city’s budget via fraudulent overtime hours – Steele is the one tasked with looking at the department from a bird’s-eye view. That view sharpens through her conversations with antagonistic cops like notorious BPD officer Daniel Hersl (a vicious turn from Josh Charles), top Baltimore brass like former police commissioner Kevin Davis (Delaney Williams), alongside local artists, authors, and activists (some of whom play themselves).
It’s through Steele that We Own This City is at its most explicit in identifying the cancerous elements of policing in America. Impunity for offenders with badges, endless battles over budget, putting restrictions on officers without also strengthening the rights of citizens, and a warlike approach to public safety – all become giant hurdles to institutional change. Like all of his shows, We Own This City’s broader ideas are grounded by a meticulous attention to geographical specificity and authenticity. Simon and his writers don’t shy away from immersing you into the regional slang and accents; the shop talk and and monotony of police work; the overlapping circles of various crimes, cops, and agencies; and most of all, a dizzying array of supporting characters, plotlines, and intermingling threads.
Extrapolating just how broken Baltimore’s law enforcement apparatus is is a knotty, challenging endeavor, but We Own This City isn’t simply interested in depicting the insidious facts – it’s also focused on dramatizing how the lack of systemic safeguards and repercussions inevitably tempts those in power to abuse it. It shows you the seductiveness, the ease, and most of all, the entitlement. In their typically unflashy and unstylized manner, Simon and company examine the moral collapse that befell Baltimore, catalyzed by the policies of drug prohibition and mass arrest that were championed at the expense of actual police work. Jenkins and the GTTF are villains, yes, but We Own This City wisely pinholes out from its singular case to show how and why people in power are incentivized to commit such crimes.
Premieres Tuesday, April 26 at 9am on HBO, and HBO GO.