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Review: Showtime's 'City on a Hill' and the True 'Boston Miracle' That Inspired It

By Dustin Rowles | TV | June 18, 2019 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | June 18, 2019 |


Showtime’s Ben Affleck and Matt Damon produced City on a Hill premiered on Sunday. Other than the series’s insistence on beating the viewer over the head about its setting, it’s a solid Boston crime drama, at least based on the pilot. The series itself actually grew out of Affleck’s research on The Town, which included a lot of social and political issues that he obviously couldn’t fit into a two-hour movie about an FBI agent taking down bank robbers.

Showtime’s City on a Hill, meanwhile, is about an FBI Agent (Kevin Bacon) — loosely based on the guy who investigated Whitey Bulger — and a district attorney (Aldis Hodge), loosely based on Boston’s first black D.A. (Ralph C. Martin Jr.), trying to take down a gang of violent armored truck robbers (led by Jonathan Tucker) in the Boston neighborhood of Charleston, but doing so at an institutional level.

Writer Chuck MacLean and showrunner Tom Fontana (Homicide: Life on the Streets) endeavor to examine the Boston-scene in the 1990s the way that David Simon tackled Baltimore in The Wire. It’s more than just about catching the bad guys and putting them away. It’s also about changing the system in a way to reduce overall crime and violence using new methods (or at least methods that were “new” in the ’90s because the very same methods employed here are now widespread thanks to their success in Boston during that decade).

Bacon plays a sort of old-school morally bankrupt and corrupt FBI Agent named Jackie Rohr, who is invincible because of a big mob investigation earlier in his career. Meanwhile, Hodge’s Decourcy Ward is a new district attorney from Brooklyn who has a reputation for going after bad cops. The two obviously do not get along because of their divergent interests, but they find common ground and ultimately agree to work together on this Charleston armored truck robbery/homicides.

The “new methods” that Jackie Rohr and Decourcy Ward will employ are ultimately inspired by Operation Ceasefire, a program implemented by criminologist David M. Kennedy back in the 1990s — it’s a “Miracle” because it resulted in a sharp decrease in youth violence and gun deaths in the latter half of the decade. The criminologist employed what I like to call “common sense.” Instead of using the city’s resources to police the entire city equally and harass random Black people on their cell phones, Operation Ceasefire concentrated their efforts on a very small percentage of the population responsible for the large majority of gun-violence deaths. Moreover, instead of focusing on the guns, they focused on the people.


Operation Ceasefire combined the efforts of Boston police, religious groups, and social scientists to tackle the problem by communicating with gang leaders, promising a zero-tolerance policy with violent criminal within that group, and followed through by lengthening the sentences for repeat offenders, while also providing assistance to those who wanted to get out and turn their lives around.

Amazingly, involving the entire community in the problem, focusing on the small number of people responsible for most of the crime, communicating directly with them, offering help, and cracking down on repeat offenders actually worked: Youth homicides fell from 73 in 1990 to ten in 1999, as well as decreased levels of overall gang violence, shots-fired calls, etc. The program was so successful that it was rolled out to great effect in other cities around the country, although Boston quit the program itself in 2000 and saw youth violence increase substantially again, because Boston doesn’t always make the best decisions.

Anyway, this is the long game on City on a Hill, which will also employ some more procedural elements to keep viewers glued to the show from week to week while the show also implements a lot of “taking down the system” tropes, for which I am a sucker, as it endeavors to amount to something more than another cop show about catching the bad guy. I’m not going to compare it to the Hamsterdam season of The Wire, because to do so would be sacrilege, but at least in its concept, that’s what it reminds me of. That, combined with Boston accents and the promise of lots of Dropkick Murphys is enough to ensure that I’ll watch.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

Header Image Source: Showtime