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It’s 20 years this summer since The Wire premiered on HBO. A bleakly compelling, forensically well-researched city map of criminality and nominal law-keeping, it expanded the focus of writer-producer David Simon’s previous Baltimore-based crime series, Homicide: Life on the Street, beyond the police force – instead portraying an entire urban ecosystem of cops, bureaucrats and the criminals that sustain them, all characterised with a democratic even-handedness that was unprecedented in procedural-minded American TV drama.

Made and broadcast wholly within the span of George W. Bush’s presidency, The Wire felt far ahead of its time in its socially diverse depiction of deep-rooted systemic dysfunction and inequality, matters for which many writers and artists have only recently, in the era of Black Lives Matter, found the lens and vocabulary. We Own This City, on the other hand, is mired in the recent past, and not just in the headline-making factual events it covers across a vast, ever-skipping timeline: Simon and co-creator George Pelecanos’s corrosive televisual return to Baltimore speaks a language of angry unrest with which average viewers may be more conversant than they were when The Wire ended in 2008.

Not a whole lot has changed in Baltimore between the two series, it seems, as We Own This City returns us to a harsh realm of institutional corruption, rampant crime and gaping racial division. But there’s a Trump-era sense here of discontent reaching its zenith, erupting in the 2015 riots that followed the police killing of Freddie Gray – a young Black man arrested for switchblade possession – while in custody. The bulk of the six-episode miniseries’s criss-crossing narrative unfolds in the raw aftermath of that scandal, with officials and civilians alike on edge. The Baltimore Police Department is under renewed scrutiny, bringing to light all manner iniquities unrelated to – but morally in keeping with –that triggering cause célèbre.

All of which brings us to the BPD’s Gun Trace Task Force, an elite squad formed with the intention of reducing violent street crime, only to become a cover for the perhaps the most ostentatious display of police racketeering the city had yet seen, with cops stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, drugs and jewellery, from dealers and innocent civilians, over a decade-long reign of terror. For any viewers wondering how they got away with it, We Own This City coolly directs us back to the culture of police brutality that has defined these streets for aeons: from standard-issue stop-and-search incidents to fraught, high-level bust operations, the series offers us explicit scene after explicit scene of cops wielding power with a casually heavy hand, and a predominantly Black populace resigned to such treatment.

At the ostensible centre of this richly populated ensemble is Jon Bernthal, tall-framed, short-fused and discomfortingly charismatic, as police sergeant Wayne Jenkins, one of the Gun Trace Task Force heavyweights arrested in 2017. It’s Jenkins’s descent from regular police thuggery – nobody enters these proceedings squeaky-clean – to more jaw-dropping depths of corruption that gives this heaving story its clearest human arc, marked in multiple flashbacks. Charted in parallel is the trajectory of Black task force member Momodu Gondo (a remarkable McKinley Belcher III), who arrives at this dirty business with less overt relish than Jenkins, perhaps knowing, by virtue of his skin colour, that he’ll never quite get away with it, though this solemn, businesslike series has little interest in sentimentalising anyone’s role in the chaos.

That goes for those on the right side of the law too. As Nicole Steele – an attorney newly assigned to the justice department’s civil rights division, determined to crack the wall of defensive silence around police brutality – the redoubtable British actor Wunmi Mosaku has the most thankless role here, largely serving as an interlocutor for ever more sobering revelations of authoritarian abuse and indifference. If the character seems increasingly numbed in the process, however, that feels true enough to life.

Directed with a sure, stoic hand by Reinaldo Marcus Green, shedding the audience-minded sweetness of his recent films King Richard and Joe Bell in favour of harder, terser vérité stylings, We Own This City to an extent misses the flavourful human connections and spiralling personal tragedies that gave The Wire its heft and grace. But it has six hours, not six years, to negotiate a labyrinth of personal and systemic failures all too reflective of today’s nervous American condition: pounding the city pavements with no time for niceties, its briskness and brusqueness are part of its power.

► We Own This City will be available to view in the UK on Sky Atlantic and NOW from 7 June.