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.