Showtime’s new crime drama City on a Hill arrives with an impressive pedigree, good writing, and strong performances. Unfortunately, it follows in the footsteps of a lot of similar TV shows and may struggle to set itself apart.
Some of those TV shows came from the same creative team. Show-runner Tom Fontana and producer Barry Levinson already set a high bar to clear with Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz. Also serving as Executive Producers are Ben Affleck (whose movie The Town covered some of the same ground) and Matt Damon.
The series is set in early 1990s Boston, still shaken in the wake of the Charles Stuart scandal that shamed the Boston Police Department. Kevin Bacon stars as Jackie Rohr, a veteran FBI agent whose bad behavior and corrupt tendencies are given a free pass because once, years ago, he was part of the team that brought down a major crime family. Described as “a classic Boston asshole,” Jackie pines for the good old days when the cops and the feds could be as dirty (and as racist) as they wanted with nobody looking over their shoulders.
When his snitch, Roach (Rory Culkin), is busted for shooting a cop in the leg, Jackie tries to pull some strings to spring him from jail. He’s hindered in that when the case falls in the lap of Suffolk County D.A. Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge from Leverage), an upright do-gooder with political ambitions and a drive to clean up the city, even if that means tearing down all of its institutions. Having previously pushed for jail time for dirty cops, Ward is not exactly popular with anyone in the police department. These two butt heads until Jackie circumvents Ward to get his way.
Circling on the periphery of that storyline is a bank robbery crew led by Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker from Westworld). After an armored car heist goes sideways, Frankie murders three guards. When he catches the case, Ward sees it as an opportunity to break down some walls in the city’s crumbling establishment, but he may need Jackie’s help to enact his plans.
As it turns out, Jackie already has a good lead in the armored car case. Frankie’s fuck-up younger brother, Jimmy (Mark O’Brien), comes snitching to him with info.
Episode Verdict / Grade: B+
TV shows and movies set in Boston almost always overdo the accents, to the point that actual Boston residents can’t help but cringe when watching them. City on a Hill works very hard to get the local color and atmosphere right. Although I didn’t personally live in some of the seedy neighborhoods depicted, the show feels very authentic to Boston in the 1990s. I had a good laugh when it was revealed that Frankie works a day job at a Purity Supreme (a.k.a. “Poverty Supreme”) grocery store (though if I’m going to nit-pick, the production designer screwed up a little in showing a beer and liquor section in the store, which wouldn’t have been possible in the early 1990s due to the Blue Laws). It also amused me that Crossing Jordan star Jill Hennessy plays Jackie’s wife. Even Lenny Clarke shows up at one point, because of course he would.
Some of the pilot episode’s plotting is a little confusing, but I’m sure that will work itself out in future episodes. In most respects, this is a classy production and the sort of intelligent examination of complex issues you’d expect from a Tom Fontana series. Characters on both sides of the law have very complicated lives.
Ultimately, however, the show doesn’t break any new ground. I’m sure it will be told well, but I feel like I’ve seen this same basic story a bunch of times already. How much of a problem that will be remains to be seen.