You may want to let out an Edvard Munch scream watching “We Own This City,” the new miniseries from David Simon and George Pelecanos. It’s a six-episode portrait of almost every variety of police corruption you can imagine, done openly and blatantly, on the streets and inside homes whose doors have just been busted down. The show, which premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO, is as dire and vivid a take on depraved cops as you will find on TV, even after Black Lives Matter led some crime-show writers to turn down the volume on the heroism and copaganda.
Set in Baltimore, based on the nonfiction book by reporter Justin Fenton, the story gives us the rise and 2017 fall of the Gun Trace Task Force, a pack of thugs with badges who grabbed stacks of cash from those they busted, secretly confiscated drugs that they later sold, planted evidence, and pulled people over with no probable cause and beat them. After the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody, aware they were under particular scrutiny for possible civil rights violations, these plainclothes lowlifes didn’t slow down a bit, brazen as ever. By the time they’re busted for racketeering, robbery, extortion, and overtime fraud, any moral compass they might have had — and some of them did begin with one — has been demagnetized and gone awry.
Like “The Wire,” the Baltimore-set classic that was created by Simon and included Pelecanos among its writers, “We Own This City” amasses into a depiction of systemic failure, where few are held accountable, where those in charge who might be hoping to create change are moved elsewhere, and where what one character refers to as “the two H’s” — homicide and heroin — remain unchecked. If a cop’s numbers were good, if the task force brought in enough guns, then they were protected and left to their own crooked devices.
Even while it is a self-contained miniseries, “We Own This City” also unfolds its story a bit like “The Wire,” which will turn 20 in June. It proceeds with a somewhat scattered narrative that comes into focus slowly but surely and powerfully, without the obvious and familiar scripted signposts along the way. It is, as we say, non-linear, ultimately comprising many years, a variety of local and federal departments, and the virus of entitlement and cruelty that spread across them. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green of “King Richard,” the ugliness, and the reach of it, creep up on you.
Even while it’s about a dysfunctional institution, “We Own This City” is also about the individuals we meet along the way to the courtroom. The characters are riveting, some for their arrogance and cruelty — see the title of the show — and others for their weakness.
Jon Bernthal plays Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, who nudges and bullies his colleagues into rogue behavior. He is a nihilistic fraud — when we meet him, he’s giving a lecture on ethics — and he masterminds all kinds of thefts, when he’s not cheating on his wife and robbing strippers. Bernthal is just right in the role, as he evolves from an aspiring newbie into a man-child driven by the basest of human instincts, strutting his way around Baltimore’s drug-bound neighborhoods like the top dog in an occupied territory. Josh Charles is equally potent as Daniel Hersl, a smug cop famous for his brutality who, of course, gets moved to the task force as a kind of solution to the many formal complaints filed against him. Charles once again shows his range, as he makes Hersl into an American grotesque.
As a sort of audience surrogate, Wunmi Mosaku drives the investigation into the Gun Trace Task Force, and the miniseries, forward. She plays Nicole Steele, an attorney for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and one of the few on the show with a clear moral sense. Her disbelief and resignation — which Mosaku keeps muted for more effect — are ours. Some of the actors here were in “The Wire,” notably Jamie Hector, who was Marlo Stanfield. Here, movingly, he plays a newly minted homicide detective named Sean Suiter who does have a conscience, and whose importance to the story peaks beautifully. He owns some of the quieter moments on the show.
“We Own This City” delivers a glut of bad behavior, and, as you might expect from Simon & Co., it does not soften the blows, nor does it oversell them. The show captures the flagrancy and injustice of the specific crimes, but it’s even more forceful as it evokes the scope of the problem, so deeply seated and insidious.
WE OWN THIS CITY
Starring: Jon Bernthal, Jamie Hector, McKinley Belcher III, David Corenswet, Josh Charles, Dagmara Dominczyk, Domenick Lombardozzi, Wunmi Mosaku, Treat Williams, Gabrielle Carteris, Delaney Williams
On: HBO. Premieres Monday at 9 p.m.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.