Over the past few years, the issues of police brutality and civil rights have come to a head, notably in the worldwide protests after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. For many, the issue wasn’t new, it was a reality that had been by and large ignored for decades. In the years since, many cable TV programmers have renewed their focus on addressing systemic failures that disproportionately impact Black Americans, including HBO with the new limited series, “We Own This City.”
Showrunners George Pelecanos and David Simon were all too familiar with the bad behavior within the halls of power in the city of Baltimore. The duo were writers and producers on HBO’s seminal show “The Wire” which ran from 2002 until 2008. The series followed police officers, citizens, city officials, and others as they navigate through the broken and corrupt systems around them. Now Pelecanos and Simon have returned to HBO with the six-part “We Own This City,” which focuses on the corruption of the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force and the impact it had on Baltimore’s residents.
In 2017, eight officers from Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force were arrested and charged with racketeering, robbery, extortion, and overtime fraud. The squad, intended to be an elite group responsible for getting guns off the streets to prevent violent crime, turned out to be abusing citizens, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from people whether or not they were involved in a crime, and planting evidence on innocent people. The scandal rocked a city already distrustful of its police and court systems, and is the subject of the show which premiered on April 25.
“We Own This City” is in many ways a love letter to the city of Baltimore, even if it is one that takes a critical eye to the way it is run. The cast and crew’s personal connections have resulted in a series that is bursting with honesty, and a hope for things to improve.
“One of the things I’m proud about the show is that we gave everybody a voice,” Pelecanos remarked during the Television Critics Association winter tour. “And the police had their say, the citizens had their say, and even though there’s a lot of people–both in talent and crew–who have been negatively impacted by growing up with having their rights violated by police, this wasn’t a show that was hating on the police.” He continued, “What are we going to do going forward? How are we going to make it better?”
Many of the cast and crew called Baltimore home, and had deep roots in the city. Pelecanos told press, “We know the city and our whole team does. You know David's history there,” referring to Showrunner David Simon, who was a writer on HBO’s "The Wire." “And [screenwriter] Bill Zorzi was a [Baltimore] Sun reporter.”
The experience of filming "The Wire" on location had a huge impact on alumni of the show, many of whom have reassembled for this latest project. “We wanted to work in Baltimore. We have a history with crews there. They're family.” Pelecanos answered when asked by press about the motivation behind doing another Baltimore-focused project. “We like bringing work to Baltimore and we thought it could be a good microcosm of the country knowing as much as we do about this city. But it could be any American city that we were discussing.” Actor Josh Charles, who plays Officer Daniel Hersl, added “It’s a city that I care about deeply, and I’m always trying to find ways to help it any way I can.”
Actor Jon Bernthal, who stars as Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, noted “For me it’s the access and love and support and almost spiritual connection that these folks have to the city of Baltimore and so much of the heart of Baltimore and its citizens are in this project and were a part of this project.”
“We Own This City” is the latest example of the way a TV series can reflect and give back to the communities they portray. For more examples, be sure to read about how AMC’s "61st Street" worked to incorporate local talent and create a pipeline into the industry while filming on Chicago’s South Side. “We Own This City” airs on HBO and HBO Max Monday nights at 9pm ET.