TV Review: ‘City on a Hill’

That admonition credited to Coco Chanel about taking one thing off before leaving the house came to mind in the first minutes of “City on a Hill.” Sure, the line is a cliché, but it’s somehow less well-worn than the Boston-cop aesthetic that pervades Showtime’s new drama. This is a show that resists no opportunity, even a glancing one, to remind viewers precisely where it’s set. At a funeral, Kevin Bacon’s FBI-agent character comforts a widow that her husband was “like Jack Kennedy”; moments later, confronted by mourners he’d promised to pay if they showed up, he notes, “Did you forget what state you’re living in, pal? This is Massachusetts — tax is a bitch.” Elsewhere, a friend monologues that Bacon’s Jackie Rohr is “a classic Boston asshole — from a time in this city when things were so f–ked up that if you went to church on Sunday you were considered legitimate.” It’s a statement that, awkwardly preceded as it is by one resident of a city saying to another the name of the place they both live, is actually trying to make a point about the city of Boston besides the fact that it exists. By that time, however, viewers might be forgiven for tuning out.

There are plenty of reasons that a relatively small U.S. city has become the staging-ground for crime stories onscreen from “Mystic River” to “The Departed.” Some are worthwhile (the city’s history of segregation makes it a dramatically interesting laboratory for ideas of justice), some less compelling (Boston accents sound funny to non-locals; a lot of creative people have roots there and are still hung up on it). Both sides of this equation come into play in “City on a Hill.” The series starts from a relatively rich premise — the arrival of a black A.D.A. (Aldis Hodge) whose moral absolutism on crime places him at odds with an early-1990s local law enforcement community more accustomed to graft, and makes him, a black man breaking into a white power structure, doubly an outsider. (Boston is the self-proclaimed “city on a hill” in part because its white residents are so uniquely obsessed with their own virtue even as they sin, making it closed-off to newcomers of color — an arresting starting point, at least.) And then it falters, more insistent on delivering local color, perhaps as remembered by executive producers and Boston natives Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, than insight or earned character detail. Bacon is trying his best — and plunging into accent work that feels at times shaky — as an FBI agent as willing to step beyond ethical lines as Hodge’s character is upright, but Rohr, consistently, feels drawn only as a sort of Bostonian amalgam. Rohr should, given his compromised ethics, have the capacity to act unpredictably while still in character. His plot function, as an uneasy ally to the A.D.A. in a joint mission to clean up the city using different methods, begins in a novel place. But leaning quite as heavily as this series does on a very fixed idea of character type sacrifices many pathways to surprise, and much potential interest.

Even as the aperture expands, little gets better: the show’s broad view of a city of wrongdoers and accomplices features many familiar types (from sad-eyed Irish brothers in crime to Rohr’s long-suffering wife, played by a poorly-used Jill Hennessy) and little sense of what life in this particular place is really like. Hodge is, by far, the best thing about the show, blending rectitude with real sorrow and moral confusion; little surprise that he is, by his nature as an outsider, the only character who doesn’t have untold numbers of referents in Boston lore. He is necessarily surprising because we haven’t seen his like many times before — a rare thing in “City on a Hill,” and a quality the show should embrace as it goes on telling the story of a city whose points of reference are widely known throughout pop culture but may still have things to teach us.

“City on a Hill.” Showtime. June 16. Ten episodes (three screened for review).

Cast: Kevin Bacon, Aldis Hodge, Jonathan Tucker, Mark O’Brien, Lauren E. Banks, Amanda Clayton, Jere Shea, Kevin Chapman, Jill Hennessy.

Executive Producers: Chuck MacLean, Tom Fontana, Jennifer Todd, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Michael Cuesta, Barry Levinson, James Mangold.

TV Review: 'City on a Hill'

More TV

  • Caroline Flack

    'Love Island' Returns to Air As ITV Defends Treatment of Caroline Flack

    ‘Love Island’ was back on air Monday for the first time since the death of former host Caroline Flack on Feb. 15. Amid the reality series’ return, broadcaster ITV insists it supported the star after she was removed from the show. Monday night’s episode began somberly with narrator Iain Stirling providing voiceover over scenes of [...]

  • Tiffany BooneEntertainment Weekly Pre-SAG Party, Arrivals,

    Actor Tiffany Boone Addresses Her Decision to Quit 'The Chi'

    Actor Tiffany Boone addressed her exit from “The Chi,” the Showtime series she departed in November 2018 after making harassment allegations against her former co-star Jason Mitchell. Mitchell was fired from the show last May as a result of intimidation and abuse accusations made by Boone and showrunner Ayanna Floyd Davis. Mitchell was subsequently dismissed [...]

  • Amazon Prime nabs ‘Russian Affairs’ for

    Amazon Prime Nabs ‘Russian Affairs’ for Germany, France and the Netherlands

    Amazon Prime Video has acquired the first season of series “Russian Affairs” for distribution in Germany, France and the Netherlands, from Russia’s Start Studios. The eight-part drama that follows the lives of Russia’s elite and those who aspire to that position is set in contemporary Moscow. Under the title “Gold Diggers,” the series was broadcast [...]

  • MODEL RELEASED Mother with baby, 1

    Channel 4 Orders ‘Baby Surgeons’ From Wonderhood Studios

    U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 has commissioned Wonderhood Studios for a documentary series with the working title “Baby Surgeons.” The series will explore the journeys parents go through to save their babies during complex pregnancies and will feature cutting-edge baby surgeries, some performed inside the womb. It will also use CGI, MRI and Ultrasound to enhance [...]

  • Bertelsmann CEO Says RTL, ProSiebenSat.1 Should

    Bertelsmann CEO Says RTL, ProSiebenSat.1 Should Be Free to Merge

    The CEO of German media giant Bertelsmann has said its RTL Group TV division should be allowed to merge with German rival ProSiebenSat.1 and called for a loosening of E.U. antitrust regulations in order to better stave off intensifying competition from U.S. streaming giants. In an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung published on [...]

  • Politicians and Petition Support BBC Following

    Politicians and Petition Support BBC Following Reports of Major Cuts

    A war of words around the future of the BBC continued on Monday amid reports of severe cutbacks to the U.K. public broadcaster. The Sunday Times reported over the weekend that Downing Street, the seat of the U.K. government, was planning to replace the annual BBC license fee with a subscription service; sell most of [...]

  • Stanley Tucci

    Stanley Tucci to Host BBC Radio 4 Series 'The Californian Century'

    Actor and filmmaker Stanley Tucci will front series “The Californian Century,” set to air on BBC Radio 4. Tucci will play a cynical screenwriter who narrates the stories of ten people who helped build California over the last 100 years. They include Francis Boggs, the first person to direct a full movie in California; Hattie [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content