Like listening to someone else tell you about their dream.
Kevin Bacon’s Jackie Rohr reminded me of an era of television that seems to have receded culturally. In the years after Tony Soprano changed the landscape forever, networks scrambled to find their own flawed anti-heroes to lead their dramas. Some of these worked out for the best (Walter White, Don Draper), but the vast majority didn’t understand what made these troubled men interesting or sympathetic and the deluge of them really helped push television to its high-concept era (which we’re still in with hits like “Westworld,” “Stranger Things,” and “Game of Thrones”). One could only take so many jerks that were really good guys if you spent enough time with them (especially as real jerks started to dominate the headlines). Perhaps we’re just far enough removed from the overdose of anti-heroes that there’s room for them at the TV table again as I found Bacon and most of “City on a Hill” engaging and interesting as the kind of old-fashioned drama that we don’t see that often anymore. Showrunner Tom Fontana is a legend, having been a part of “St. Elsewhere,” “Oz” and “Homicide: Life on the Street,” and he brings his expertise to a show that has just enough crackling dialogue and fascinating characters to keep its sometimes-clunky plot moving.
“City on a Hill” is a sprawling crime drama set against the backdrop of 1990s Boston, a part of the world rife with corruption (go Google Whitey Bulger) but also a major city that was changing in such a way that the old systems were about to collapse. Jackie Rohr is a part of that system—an FBI vet that’s so well-respected that he doesn’t buy a drink in any bar in the city and can cut corners and push the boundaries of the law in a way that gets the job done. He’s introduced spewing profanity and subplots over the first few episodes involve his drug habit, along with a worry that he may have caught an STD from his mistress. He’s not exactly a role model for his kid's Career Day. And yet Bacon keeps him from sliding into “Bad Lieutenant” territory, never going as far as to ask you to like Rohr but to respect how he takes care of business.
Rohr’s life is changed when he meets a new Assistant District Attorney named Decourcey Ward (Aldis Hodge) and the two are forced to partner on solving a string of robberies, including one that has left a crew of an armored truck missing and presumed dead. Don’t worry, this is not a Boston cop version of “Green Book.” Ward and Rohr find ways to navigate each other’s backgrounds and have very different degrees of integrity, but they won’t be hugging on the holidays any time soon. And “City on a Hill” wisely gives the men interesting personal lives. The underrated Jill Hennessy is excellent as Jackie’s wife Jenny, a woman who may be realizing that anti-heroes make shitty husbands, while Lauren E. Banks gets her own early arc as Decourcey’s partner Siobhan, who finds herself torn between her husband and a local religious leader who basically sees authorities like government officials as the enemy.
As if that’s not enough for a drama, we also get to know the robbers, led by Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker) and his dimwit brother Jimmy (Mark O’Brien). Frankie is the brains of the operation and Jimmy is the liability, but even the cliché inherent in that set-up feels freshly maintained by Fontana and the team behind “City on a Hill.” Again, it helps to have a female counterpoint character who feels fully considered too in Frankie’s wife Cathy (Amanda Clayton).
Executive Producer Jennifer Todd says in the production notes that “City on a Hill” is a show about “people who talk too much and are really bad at communicating.” I like how much that captures about this show, one in which the dialogue is crisp but never sounds forced or clichéd. These are fast-talkers and fast-movers who often speak and act before they think, and it takes someone who has a history of managing large casts across multiple storylines to really bring a show like this one together. It helps to have an ensemble who all seems to be on the same page as well, and there’s not a weak link in this one. Bacon will be the stand-out for most people, but his performance doesn’t work without the counterbalances of Hennessy, Hodge and even the great vets Kevin Chapman and Sarah Shahi. And it’s great to see Jonathan Tucker in what feels like it will become a really juicy role.
At its best, “City on a Hill” reminded me of crime movies like “The Town”—and it should be noted that Boston royalty Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are producers here—and “A Most Violent Year.” Some of the plotting over the first few episodes could be tighter, but I was never bored and I’m eager to see more. I’m also confident that this show will only get more engaging as the heat is turned up on its characters and everyone involved learns how to lean into what really works about this program. With a new Netflix series dropping every other day and more and more networks fighting for the scraps that remain, a show like “City on a Hill” can get lost in the shuffle. Don’t let that happen.
Three episodes screened for review.
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