The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ‘The Wire’ is 20. ‘We Own This City’ is a challenge to its biggest fans.

McKinley Belcher III, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Jon Bernthal, Josh Charles in a scene from HBO's miniseries "We Own This City." (Photograph by Paul Schiraldi/ HBO)
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“We Own This City” and “The Wire” share several similarities. Both the new miniseries and the 20-year-old classic deal with the collapse of Baltimore. Both are the creations of writers David Simon and George Pelecanos. And both star members of a Simon-convened ensemble including Jamie Hector and Delaney Williams.

But “The Wire” is a show about people trying and failing. “We Own This City” is about people who have failed and don’t particularly care about anything other than grabbing what they can from the wreckage. Viewers who were captivated by the former should feel uncomfortable watching the latter. While “We Own This City” focuses on the scandals of the Baltimore Police Department’s corrupt Gun Trace Task Force, it’s at least in part an indictment of how people who claimed to love “The Wire” failed to act on that enthusiasm.

Simon’s new show is an unsparing and unblinking look at the ways in which institutional corruption up and down the line has led to Baltimore becoming the American equivalent of a failed state.

Indeed, I couldn’t help but feel while watching “We Own This City” that it was, occasionally, in dialogue with “The Wire.” Or, perhaps more to the point, in dialogue with the people who watched and loved “The Wire” but took no lessons from “The Wire,” people who understood it to be a critique of the drug war and went to work for the Obama administration and did nothing to stop the drug war, people who watched silently 40 miles south as Baltimore slid into further violence, further corruption, further decay.

That anger is clearest during the scenes in Episodes 5 and 6 with Brian Grabler (Treat Williams), a cop-turned-police-academy-teacher who instructs recruits on the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth amendments. During his conversations with an attorney from the Justice Department’s Office for Civil Rights who is negotiating a consent decree, however, we get to the heart of the show — the reason it exists: What do we expect from cops who we’ve tasked with winning the drug war?

That term itself gets to the nub of the problem. “Everything changed when they came up with that expression, ‘the war on drugs,’” Grabler says. “What an idiotic f---ing thing to say. What the hell is a war on drugs? What does that mean? Waging a war against citizens by definition is separating us into two opposing camps.” Director Reinaldo Marcus Green pushes in on Williams as the veteran actor musters all his weary gravitas to decry the petty, little civil rights violations that pile up in the name of this war: the illegal arrests, the rousting people off their own stoops to keep the streets clear. For committing the crime of “existing” in the city.

“I come off as angry sometimes,” his first scene concludes. “Aren’t you angry?”

It is as though that camera were pushing in on Simon himself, the veteran-reporter-turned-author-turned-television-showrunner. He has gotten tired of beating around the bush and is going to get a little didactic with us, the audience.

It’s not just the illegal activity of police Sgt. Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal) that has Simon and company so fired up. It’s also the mayor who bails on the city after the Freddie Gray riots and the next mayor who refuses to pay for the body cameras needed to ensure bad cops can be held accountable for misdeeds and good cops cleared of wrongdoing. And the police chief who blames his predecessors for the inability to enact change even as he’s heaping praise on Jenkins’s corrupt team because it piles up arrests. And, of course, the DOJ that refuses to recognize the root cause of all this: the drug war.

Compared with “We Own This City,” “The Wire” has a sort of quiet resignation. It feels, largely, like a more-in-sadness-than-in-anger examination of the way cops, politicians, schools, unions and journalists have all failed the city of Baltimore. The show’s five seasons demonstrate how failure, like interest on debt to one of the payday-loan shops that dot Baltimore, can compound in a way that renders escape impossible. When everything’s broken, no one feels any impetus to do anything other than look out for themselves.

Still, “The Wire” was very clearly about one thing: the failures and the iniquities of the drug war. That is the root cause of so many of Baltimore’s problems, at the familial, political and policing levels. It’s hard to blame Simon for being so frustrated. There is now a generation of politicians and aides who claim to love “The Wire” like all good connoisseurs of the golden age of TV, and yet none of them has any interest in taking the show’s message to heart and enacting the changes needed.

Maybe the lesson Simon should have taken from the past 20 years is to get into politics himself if he wanted to bring about change, rather than making yet another TV show. But “We Own This City” is a challenge to fans of “The Wire” who insist that art can change the world. A reflection of reality can only help us see what needs to be done. It can’t make us do it.