At first glance, Showtime’s new drama City on a Hill looks as if it could have been conceived by someone particularly taken with Ben Affleck’s 2010 Boston-set crime drama The Town. What with its brotherhood of violent Beantown criminals doing battle not only with the FBI, but eventually among themselves, the two seemingly share some sort of DNA. That turns out to be true, as the new series is executive produced by Affleck and Matt Damon, but instead of starring either actor, it stars Kevin Bacon as corrupt FBI agent Jackie Rohr, who eventually joins forces with ADA Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge) in an effort to clean up Boston’s corrupt legal system, which the series surmises is what allows a ruthless gang of armored car robbers to run roughshod across the city.
Admittedly, that all sounds like Affleck’s film, but as the series premiere demonstrates, and subsequent episodes continue to prove, City on a Hill isn’t particularly interested in being Showtime’s The Town. Instead, it’s far more interested in being compared to David Simon’s The Wire. That’s both an impressive aspiration and a seemingly foolhardy one. And furthermore, there are those who think The Wire out Wire-d itself in its final season, an opinion that suggests being one of the most celebrated television series of all time is just as difficult as trying be like it.
Nevertheless, City on a Hill creator Chuck MacLean and showrunner Tom Fontana have a solid grasp on what the show’s strong suits are, and the writers’ room plays them as frequently as possible. In doing so, the series establishes various story threads involving Bacon and Hodge’s characters, as well as the aforementioned gang of violent robbers, which is headed up by Jonathan Tucker (American Gods) as Frankie Ryan, a blue collar worker, husband, and father whose hobbies include the occasional heist as a way of supplementing his family’s apparent meager income. In addition to his wife and kid, Frankie is taking care of his hard-drinking, hard-fighting, junkie younger brother, Jimmy (Mark O’Brien), who desperately wants in on the next job despite being the least reliable guy in Boston.
The premiere, directed by Michael Cuesta (American Assassin), brings together a variety of influences that range from Affleck’s The Town to Heat to Cop Land and more. Thankfully, though, the series doesn’t feel like a pastiche of feature films about career criminals, governmental failings, corruption scandals, rather it feels very distinctly like a gritty cop drama one would find on television in the mid-00s. As such, there’s a nostalgia factor at play that certainly has to do with the series being set in the early ‘90s, but also in terms of how the series is filmed and arranged, and how Bacon’s unscrupulous fed is so reminiscent of the difficult men and antiheroes who populated popular television just a few years ago.
To balance out Jackie’s coke-snorting, hard-drinking, Rush-loving ways, the series gives equal time to his idealistic counterpart, Decourcy Ward. Decourcy’s an outsider, both because he’s black and because he’s from Brooklyn, which, considering how insular City on a Hill portrays Boston as, means he’s more or less behind enemy lines. Like all good partnerships, Jackie and Decourcy begin theirs on opposite sides, with Ward looking to prosecute a low-level criminal for his involvement in the shooting of a police officer — one that resulted from the police forcibly entering the wrong apartment. As it turns out, the kid he’s prosecuting, Clay Roach (Rory Culkin), is one of Jackie’s confidential informants. The two battle it out briefly before Jackie goes over Decourcy’s head, calling in a few favors and threatening the right people — in this case, former Person of Interest co-star Kevin Chapman — to get the charges against his CI dropped. Ward quickly learns that if he’s going to make any changes in Boston, he’s going to have to learn how to play by Boston’s rules. That means aligning himself with an insider like Jackie.
The series premiere, ‘The Night Flynn Sent the Cops on the Ice,’ pushes things along at a swift pace, but without coming across as overly hurried. The hour has to make some concessions in terms of certain characters, like Jackie’s wife, Jenny (Jill Hennessy), who’s aware the scumbag her husband is (in Don Draper-like fashion, Jackie’s seen cheating on Jenny before she’s even introduced), yet the two remain together presumably because, as Matt Damon says in The Departed, “I’m f***ing Irish. I’ll deal with something being wrong for the rest of my life.”
The series is interested in the home lives of Decourcy and Frankie, too, and both are introduced here and produce varying degrees of interest. The efficacy of the family storylines will be tested early on as a twist at the episode’s end puts a member of Frankie’s crew firmly in Jackie’s pocket, potentially meaning less real estate for the wife characters to be developed and given threads of their own. But considering the breadth of the series' narrative ambitions, as laid out by the premiere, there's a good chance that City on a Hill will find a way to dig deep and offer up the sort of character drama that may well make it a standout on Showtime.
City On a Hill continues next Sunday with 'What They Saw in Southie High' @9pm on Showtime.