‘City on a Hill’ isn’t exactly a Boston version of ‘The Wire,’ but it has potential
First things first, Bostonians. The accents in “City on a Hill,” the latest TV series set in Boston and eager to evoke local flavah, really aren’t too bad. Every so often, when he’s in the moment and truly feeling his inner ruffian, star Kevin Bacon too conspicuously drops an “R” as if he just had pissah Pop Tahts at Fenway Pahk with Mayor Walsh. Likewise, at moments the local references — Doug Flutie, Whitey Bulger, the Bruins, Taxachusetts — feel like easy things dropped into the scripts merely to add specific color. But overall, my sense of Boston Wrong was spared, the squawking echoes of “Ray Donovan” nowhere to be heard.
And what about the rest of “City on a Hill,” which arrives on Showtime on Sunday at 9 p.m.? It’s good, if you like gritty crime drama and crooked cops; and, based on the three episodes available for review, it’s going to get better. A fictionalized look back at the genesis of the “Boston Miracle” of the 1990s, an initiative to get cops, community leaders, and religious leaders to help lower the youth homicide rate, it’s the story of a city trying to save itself from more downward spirals. The premiere begins with a card reminding us of the ugly low from which Boston needed to emerge: The 1989 Charles Stuart case, in which a white man killed his wife and sent police after a black man.
The series looks familiar — like what you’d probably expect of a Boston crime drama set in the early 1990s, with dive bars, scally caps, rows of triple-deckers, and dim, tacky interiors where bitter wives and mothers sit smoking cigarettes. And it delivers the oft-portrayed image of Boston tribalism, cronyism, racism, and corruption, with Irish-Catholic working-class thugs who are brothers and cops who blackmail and get blackmailed. After all, the list of executive producers includes the pair who’ve perhaps done the most to forward the Boston mythology in recent years, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, along with Barry Levinson, show creator Chuck MacLean, and showrunner Tom Fontana.
But the scope of “City on a Hill” is more ambitious than most of the Boston stories we’ve seen, including Affleck’s “The Town” and “Gone Baby Gone,” and that gives it distinction. The show aims, through its many plotlines set in different corners of the city, to do what “The Wire” did in Baltimore — take a step back and look at how judicial, criminal, and political institutions work and, mostly, don’t work. No, “City on a Hill” is not nearly as sharp and authentic as David Simon’s masterpiece (even though Simon came up under Levinson and Fontana on “Homicide: Life on the Streets”); it’s showier, with sometimes-hammy acting, and far more melodrama. But, as its plots build and overlap, “City on a Hill” takes a more distanced, systemic view of this thorny city than expected.
There are three central characters. Bacon is Jackie Rohr, an FBI agent who is crooked, seedy, and, when it comes to cornering his adversaries, pretty bright. He’s usually drunk, snorting coke, and/or cheating on his wife, and Bacon, with a mustache and a sparkle in his eye, is a natural in the role. He looks like he’s having a good time as he spreads Jackie’s sliminess all over town, at one point even blackmailing his mother-in-law (well-played by Catherine Wolf) so she’ll keep a secret. Jackie is a racist, although he’d probably call himself a realist, and, in a classic TV anti-hero gesture, he is also one of the Boston Miracle’s prime movers. For his own reasons, he is hungry to join forces with the new assistant district attorney, a black man named Decourcy Ward played by Aldis Hodge.
Ward, originally from Brooklyn, is an idealist who wants to end the corruption in Boston. But, as a black man trying to break up the city’s predominantly white power structure, he needs Jackie’s cultural advice, a lesson he learns across the first few episodes. He begins to let go of his moral purity, to reach his ends. He’s a serious guy whose caution often leaves him alone and detached, even when it comes to his wife, Siobhan (Lauren E. Banks), an attorney. Right off the bat, Bacon dominates the show, but before long Hodge is playing opposite ends of the same spectrum with an internalized version of Bacon’s intensity.
The third main character is Frankie Ryan, nicely played by former local guy Jonathan Tucker. His segments of the story are the juiciest, even if they succumb most to Boston clichés. Frankie is a good father, a loving husband, a loyal brother, a supermarket stocker, an all-round decent guy, and, oh yeah, a murdering thief. He coolly guides his crew through armored car robberies, but when one goes south, his world begins to fall apart. Fontana and MacLean build a rich world of characters around Frankie, most notably his troubled younger brother, Jimmy, played in an outstandingly jittery performance by Mark O’Brien. Jimmy’s a time bomb, and everyone knows it, including his mother (Cathy Moriarty) and Frankie’s wife (Amanda Clayton), who helps launder all the stolen money.
Across the first three episodes, we meet many characters in each of these worlds. Some are more hackneyed than others, but generally the big cast — including Jill Hennessey as Jackie’s neglected wife — gives the show a welcome sense of sprawl, just as it did on “The Wire.” If “City on a Hill” can continue to develop all these characters, making sure each grows more defined as the bigger storylines overlap, the drama could turn out well. It gives us a vision of an American city before 9/11, when the biggest threats came from within.
CITY ON A HILL
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Aldis Hodge, Jonathan Tucker, Mark O’Brien, Jill Hennessy, Kevin Chapman, Lenny Clarke, Dean Winters, Lauren E. Banks, Kevin Dunn, Rory Culkin, Michael O’Keefe, Catherine Wolf, Blake Baumgartner, Amanda Clayton, Sarah Shahi, Gloria Reuben
On: Showtime, Sunday at 9 p.m.