An early episode of Showtime’s new Nineties-set Boston drama City on a Hill opens with two characters discussing the classic children’s book Make Way for Ducklings (set in Boston Public Garden) and the city’s 1980s school-busing controversy. The only way the series — produced, of course, by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, along with creator Chuck MacLean and the Oz duo of Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson — could more loudly declare its geographic bona fides would be for one of them to mention the time his buddy Sully parked his car in Harvard Yard. But despite the thick accents and references to Doug Flutie, the Bruins and a “classic Boston asshole,” City on a Hill quickly settles in as a solid tale of urban crime and corruption.
Introductory title cards take us back to a real-life case from 1989, when a white man named Chuck Stuart murdered his wife, then blamed it on a black man, which prompted the local cops to use abhorrent methods to find the phantom killer, followed by years of violence and attempted reform. Enter stars Kevin Bacon and Aldis Hodge as reluctant allies Jackie Rohr and Decourcy Ward, who represent, respectively, the way the town’s always worked and the better way it could be. Rohr, a casually corrupt FBI agent (and the classic Boston asshole in question) brags that “what used to make this city great was that it was run by bad men who understood that they were bad.” Ward’s an outsider from Brooklyn and a straight-edged black prosecutor in a city with an enmeshed white power base. (Ward’s boss, played by Kevin Dunn, dismisses him as “just a Brownsville porch monkey, but his wife’s got money.”) Their contradictory interests overlap in a series of armored-car robberies pulled by a crew led by brothers Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker) and Jimmy (Mark O’Brien), and soon enough they’re grudgingly sharing drinks, stories and quotes from muckraking early 20th-century journalist Lincoln Steffens.
The constant Boston name-checks are meant to add specificity to what would otherwise be a familiar story about the intersection between crime and politics. (When Ward declares that he wants to “rip out the fucked up machinery in this bullshit city,” Rohr snaps back, “Do you honestly think you’re the first person to feel this way?”) But the city doesn’t exactly lack for screen representation, including a number of past projects involving Affleck and/or Damon. (If it’s been a minute since you last heard the stat about how many armed robberies there are in Charlestown, then you’re in luck.) Instead, the main thing elevating the slow-burning early episodes from every other Wire wannabe (*) are the performances.
(*) Remember: Fontana and Levinson brought David Simon to TV in the first place with their Hall of Fame cop-show adaptation of his book, Homicide.
Bacon, displaying both a painter’s-brush mustache and the show’s must successful battle with the local accent, embraces the unapologetic sliminess of Rohr. He’s a bigot who abuses drugs and cheats on his wife Jenny (Jill Henessy, returning to her Crossing Jordan turf), but he’s loving life and his ability to be two steps ahead of everyone else — Ward included. Across his career, Bacon’s played so many good guys and so many outright villains that he’s a natural at antihero material like this. Rohr’s a cliche, but he’s a cliche being played by Kevin Bacon, and that’s enough at the start.
Ward is the less flashy role, but Hodge brings the necessary charisma to play someone this confident in his own righteousness. He’s been on the verge of breaking out for what feels like forever (RIP, WGN’s terrific but underseen slavery drama Underground), and hopefully this will be the part that does it. Frankie Ryan’s a more straightforward character than the kind of eccentric toughs that Tucker’s specialized in playing lately (Kingdom, Justified, Westworld), but he’s strong in this mode, too.
As can unfortunately be the case with this genre, the female characters are a mixed bag — good actresses in roles that are marginalized by design, even if the creative team tries to give them things to do. Frankie’s wife Cathy (Amanda Clayton) is more in the know about what her husband is up to than Jenny Rohr is about hers, and thus gets some livelier material. (Finding out that Jenny’s daughter has been bullied at school, Cathy tells her, “You have my permission: Break Johnny’s dick!”) Sarah Shahi, sporting big Nineties hair, has a fun recurring role as Rachel, an investigator assigned to Ward and Rohr’s secret task force who’s smarter than they expect.
None of it feels particularly fresh, but most of it’s well-executed, and the talent in front of and behind the camera is promising enough to earn patience. It seems like the sort of show you’ll like if you like this sort of show. But in case you weren’t already clear on this, the City on a Hill in question is Boston.
City on a Hill debuts June 16th on Showtime. I’ve seen the first three episodes.