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The First Season of 'City on a Hill' Lives and Dies by the Performance of Kevin Bacon

By Dustin Rowles | TV | August 19, 2019 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | August 19, 2019 |


Showtime’s City on a Hill grew out of Ben Affleck’s research while making The Town and the idea that he’d like to create a sprawling crime drama for television, a medium that would allow Affleck to cover more social and political issues instead of just bank robberies. The Showtime series, set in the 1980s, is ostensibly based on Operation Ceasefire, a program implemented in Boston by criminologist David M. Kennedy back in the 1990s designed to reduce crime by focusing police resources on the small percentage of people most likely to commit crimes while also bringing in religious and other community leaders to help communicate with gangs and other repeat offenders (the program was a huge success that was eventually rolled out in other large cities).

Given the background, I was anticipating in City on a Hill a more substantive crime drama that tackled crime in Boston at the policy level, much like The Wire had done for Baltimore. For better or worse, however, City on a Hill is far more Dennis Lehane than it is David Simon. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but suffice to say, City on a Hill is a show far more interested in entertaining its viewer than providing much by way of social commentary beyond, “Boston is wicked corrupt.”

(Season One spoilers below)

The first season of the series was shaped around Kevin Bacon’s morally bankrupt FBI agent, Jackie Rohr; Aldis Hodge’s ambitious but earnest district attorney, DeCourcy Ward; and Frankie Ryan and Jimmy Ryan (Jonathan Tucker and Mark O’Brien, respectively), bank robber brothers whose crew had killed three armored vehicle guards during a heist in the pilot. It very much ends up being a game of cat and mouse, only the two cats — Rorh aand Hodge — are often at odds with each other, as are the two mice, Frankie and Jimmy, and in both respects, one ends up selling out the other to get what he wants.

In an effort to trick Jimmy into lying and having his immunity deal pulled, Frankie seta a trap for him, but it backfires and Jimmy tells the truth: He admits to murdering a police informant. That also blows up on Hodge, who gave Jimmy blanket immunity in exchange for testifying against Frankie before knowing that he’d admit to other crimes. Rohr, meanwhile, knew about Jimmy’s murder, but I think he used some reverse psychology to get Hodge to provide Jimmy with the blanket immunity deal. In either respect, the corrupt Rohr once again finds himself the hero, while Jimmy the rat gets off scot-free. Frankie gets locked away for the rest of his life and Hodge’s political aspirations will have to be put on hold for the time being. In the end, it pits a disgraced district attorney against the corrupt FBI hero, Rohr, for the second season, which has already been picked up by Showtime. “But the day will come,” Hodge tells Rorh in the season’s final scene, set in the Boston bar, The Last Hurrah. “Maybe I don’t come after you. Maybe you decide to come after me. I’ll be waiting.”

It was a fairly good season, overall, although I didn’t much care for the David E. Kelley shenanigans in the end — witnesses confessing on the stand to additional crimes under blanket immunity deals is a tired trope for legal procedurals, an overused twist that wore out its welcome years ago. Likewise, the subplots with all the wives suffered. I appreciate that the series wanted to include three female leads, but each of their stories felt tacked on as though to satisfy an obligation. Amanda Clayton, Jill Hennessy, and Lauren E. Banks were all terrific, but they were let down by the characters, each of which only existed to serve their husband’s storylines. At least Sarah Shahi’s investigator, Rachel Benham, had agency, but that character was not particularly well-drawn (Shahi neverthless managed to do a lot with the little given to her).

I’ll still come back for a second season, though, if only for Kevin Bacon’s oily sleazebag Jackie Rohr, one of the most reprehensible “good guys” in recent television history. He’s both anti-hero and villain, and to the show’s credit, it has no interest in redeeming him. He’s the ultimate symbol of Boston’s corruption. He’s never going to be cleaned up. He’ll have to be permanently stamped out, and while that will ultimately be satisfying, it will come at the expense of City on a Hill, because there’ll be little reason left to watch once he’s been erased from the show.

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.

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