'City on a Hill': TV Review

An ambitious crime drama with great potential and a red flag or two.
6/16/2019

Showtime's Boston-set series starring Kevin Bacon and Aldis Hodge tells a sprawling story of crime, race and police corruption.

It's not every day in the content-packed environment of 2019 Peak TV that you see a television show not only take its own damned time, but very clearly and meticulously set the groundwork for a series of stories the creators undoubtedly hope will last, at minimum, five seasons.

It's both daunting and audacious, but Showtime's new drama City on a Hill is very clearly taking that route, so the three episodes sent to critics for review don't really come close to being enough to get a read on what the series really is or will become — or who among the enormous cast (outside of its two engaging leads, Kevin Bacon and Aldis Hodge) will step up and be central. Hell, maybe they all will — City on a Hill is laying enough track in the first three hours to give everybody a long, important ride.

The big question, of course, is whether viewers will have the patience needed to let a mammoth story like this unfold when the first three hours are more interesting than riveting.

In many ways, City on a Hill seems like a throwback drama, and maybe that's not surprising when two icons of an earlier TV era, executive producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson (Homicide: Life on the Street), are the heavyweights behind the effort, which was created and written by Chuck MacLean. First off, when Fontana and Levinson are on board, you should pay attention. Second, this is a series not lacking in executive producer star power, including Jennifer Todd (Jason Bourne, Memento), Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. 

Bacon and Hodge headline a sprawling cast in a story set in early 1990s Boston and intent on tackling issues of race and police corruption.

The series opens with a black screen and these words: "In October 1989, a white man — Charles "Chuck" Stuart — killed his wife, wounded himself and then claimed the killer was black. During the investigation, the Boston Police Department used intimidation and coercion, eventually charging a black man. But then Stuart's brother told the truth, leading Stuart to commit suicide...(pause)...and all hell broke loose."

With the cop angle (Fontana and Levinson) and the Boston angle (Affleck and Damon) covered, it's no wonder Showtime has high hopes that MacLean can deliver a gritty series that touches on cops, crooks, politicians, pastors and a divided, tense city — a once-popular genre type from which cable and streaming have largely moved away and networks can't accurately deliver.

So the opportunity is there for Showtime, MacLean and company to really have something meaty to rip into for seasons to come.

The trick, though, is circumventing that aforementioned attention-span issue — City on a Hill, early on, looks to be a series for viewers who are only committed to a handful of shows and can therefore give it their undivided attention, not the more plentiful modern group of viewers who are juggling 10 or more. Its density demands dedication. 

Hodge plays Decourcy Ward, an assistant district attorney who made a name for himself proposing that cops should be put in jail not only for corruption, but for negligent shootings, etc. (the story begins in 1992). Born and raised in Brooklyn, Ward finds Boston to be a completely different universe. In short order, he's formed "an unlikely alliance" with Jackie Rohr (Bacon), a corrupt and racist but beloved FBI agent, who, like almost everyone around him, is very much a Boston-raised boy. For reasons not especially clear, both men will work on the macro job of changing Boston's institutions, starting with the micro case of getting criminals (and everyday folks) to rat out some bank robbers in Charlestown, the part of town where cases go to die, who are led by Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker).

While that is, nebulously, the center of City on a Hill, the main mission of the first three episodes and, one would assume many more to come, is the introduction of multiple figures surrounding Decourcy, Jackie and Frankie — from spouses (Jill Hennessy stands out as Jackie's ignored wife) to co-workers (Sarah Shahi and Kevin Dunn, their characters possibly working toward opposite goals in the district attorney's office, are early breakout candidates), bosses, siblings, mothers, friends, bartenders, etc. (add in Seth Gilliam's fiery, stubborn pastor as another character to watch). One thing City on a Hill is not is in a hurry.

Bacon is excellent here because it's so clearly in his wheelhouse. There's never a moment when he doesn't look like he's have a blast, laying on the accent and reveling in Jackie's excesses — drinking, cocaine, extramarital affairs, bending the law, oblivious to anything that might be offensive to another person. He's a hurricane and loving it.

Hodge is equally effective because his character is never rattled even when he finds himself — which is immediately — on an island between the cops and Boston's black community, trying to serve both in a job that makes all sides wary of his motivation. But the fact that Decourcy knows what he's up against and doesn't suffer fools easily gives the character a kind of zen presence, which is particularly necessary as Bacon gets to tear through everything with abandon. Both actors also pull out the subtle, more devious aspects of their characters early on, which bodes well for what will clearly be some slow-burn evolution. 

Again, City on a Hill feels like a throwback in 2019 because it's not worried about binge-pacing or whether or not you've overcommitted to too many other shows. It has a confidence in its novelistic approach. That's admirable but not without problems, of course: The world building is impressive, but the pace is worrisome.

Cast: Kevin Bacon, Aldis Hodge, Jill Hennessy, Gloria Reuben, Kevin Dunn, Kevin Chapman, Lauren E. Banks, Seth Gilliam, Mark O'Brien, Amanda Clayton, Jere Shea, Lenny Clarke, Sarah Shahi, James Remar, Dean Winters, Rory Culkin, Georgina Reilly
Created and written by: Chuck MacLean
Pilot directed by: Michael Cuesta
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)