Showtime’s upcoming drama “City on a Hill” explores the corruption in Boston in the early ‘90s, as the criminal activity rose in the wake of law enforcement corruption, but one infamous name won’t really be explored: Whitey Bulger.
The real-life crime boss was a vital fixture in Massachusetts during the era, but creator Chuck MacLean, who grew up in the city at the time, is opting to pay a quick homage to Bulger’s existence and then move on with telling their original story.
“I didn’t want to approach it at all,” he admitted during the ATX Television Festival panel Saturday. “I figured if we got [the reference] out of the way [in the premiere], people wouldn’t think we were building to his [entry into the series. … I grew up with that story — it was on the news every night — I’m tired of it.”
Instead, “City on a Hill” focuses on the fictional FBI agent Jackie Rohr (played by Kevin Bacon) and Assistant District Attorney Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge), who enter into an uneasy alliance to shake up the system.
“The show started as an idea of [executive producer] Ben Affleck’s,” executive producer Jennifer Todd said. “He used some of the history of Boston for ‘The Town.’ He thought it would be a good idea to go back to the Boston Miracle. We brought the idea to Chuck, and the rest is all his fault.”
For Bacon, the hard-drinking, cheating, casually racist Jackie was appealing because of the character’s mindset that, through it all, he was doing the right thing. “When I’m walking in his shoes, that’s all I have to focus on,” he said. “I just have to stay true to who he is.”
“I don’t do things as an actor I worry will reflect on me as a person,” he continued. “I think that’s the difference between an actor and a celebrity: You just play the guy and tell the truth of who that guy is. It’s really up to people to judge him. I know how I feel about him and the things he does [and] more importantly, Jackie is not judging himself.”
Hodge’s Ward, on the other hand, is presented as the upstanding good guy, which has its own complexity.
“For this, my primary thing was to make sure I wasn’t boring,” Hodge said. “I think it’s like once you get into an arena, in order to survive, you have to speak the language. There’s a part of him that’s still graduating to that point.”
But the partnership could shift the dynamic. “Of course, Jackie may take him down a darker path,” Hodge admitted. “Personally, he’s trying to hold on to who he is, as much as possible. It comes down to an idea of just doing the wrong thing to accomplish the wrong thing …. how much of this moral compass am I willing to risk to achieve this victory at the end of the day? If he’s trying to be Mr. Goody Two-Shoes, he’s going to get iced out.”
Struggling similarly to fit in is Jill Hennessy’s Jenny, who is married to an increasingly distant Jackie.
“So much of what I love about the characters in this is what’s not spoken,” Hennessy said. “The things we’re afraid to confront in our lives. How desperately we try to fit into the mold of what we think we should be. I see her as someone who is so desperately trying to make this work. … I love that struggle.”
The drama might be set in the past, but executive producer Tom Fontana, who came on after the pilot was originally filmed, was inspired by how timely the issues still felt.
“A crime story, generically, doesn’t get me very excited,” he said. “But when Showtime asked me to watch the pilot they shot, I was stunned by Chuck’s writing and the incredible cast. … Dealing with racism, dealing with misogyny, dealing with government corruption, it was a very human drama.”
Though the series is just starting, MacLean acknowledged he already has an idea about where it would end.
“I can’t work in a straight line; I get inspired by a certain moment I want to do,” MacLean said. “This is how I see I get there, but it’s undetermined [exactly the path]. [But] I have it in my head.”