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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

City On A Hill returns with new stories, characters, and confidence

Kevin Bacon
Kevin Bacon
Photo: Showtime
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There’s an obvious comparison that comes to mind when watching “Bill Russell’s Bedsheets,” the second season premiere of City On A Hill, and rather than avoid it, creator/writer Chuck MacLean steers right into it. I’m talking about The Wire, a consensus pick as one of the greatest crime dramas of all time. That comparison also came to mind early in the show’s first season, at which point it did City On A Hill no favors at all. But City slowly gained its footing over the course of the first ten episodes, and while it’s still quite a distance from the Wire mountaintop, it begins its sophomore session with the brash confidence of Kevin Bacon’s Jackie Rohr.

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As the new season kicks off, that confidence has been shaken a bit, giving birth to the awkward new nickname “I am woman, hear me” Rohr. Jackie is at least pretending to play it straight, but it can’t last. We join him on a date in progress, speeding through the streets of Boston and blasting the Doobie Brothers while snorting coke with Assistant US Attorney Holly Gunner. The evening ends badly when she overdoses and has a stroke, and Rohr does the gentlemanly thing by dumping her at a hospital entrance and leaving her for his former partner and now head of hospital security Salvy Clasby (Michael O’Keefe) to deal with.

The FBI is already under scrutiny given the revelations about the top echelon informant program and Agent John Connolly’s aiding and abetting of mob boss Whitey Bulger, so a loose cannon like Rohr is on thin ice. But while the US Attorney’s office may want Jackie gone, he can still be of use to old pal Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge), himself suffering a career setback after granting immunity to an admitted murderer last season. He enlists Jackie in the cause of convincing his fellow FBI agents to kick loose Madeline Wilson, a young woman they’re trying to turn into an informant.

Aldis Hodge
Aldis Hodge
Photo: Showtime

As The Wire did in its second season, City On A Hill expands its reach to take in another part of the city. But while The Wire started with young black men dealing drugs in the projects before incorporating a criminal element of working-class ethnic whites, City has done the reverse. As on The Wire, some of the previous season’s villains are still kicking around the periphery, notably that star witness Jimmy Ryan (Mark O’Brien).But since he’s persona non grata in Southie, Jimmy is now doing business in Braxton Summit, a federal housing project in Roxbury. That project is home to a number of new characters we meet in the premiere, including activist Grace Campbell (Pernell Walker), dealers Kelvin and Anton, and the aforementioned Madeline Wilson, an innocent turned pawn when a dealer dumps his stash in her car.

Lest you think I’m pushing the Wire comparison too far, City leans into it by casting John Doman in essentially the same role he played on the former show. As the oddly-named Guy Dan, Doman is Decourcy’s hardass boss who urges him to do a minimal investigation into the Holly Gunner situation: “No subpeonas, no arrests, no grand jury.” Hey, at least he didn’t say “no wiretaps.”

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When an eleven-year-old girl is killed by the crossfire during a shootout between rival drug gangs, DeCoursy is on the scene along with police detective Chris Caysen (Matthew Del Negro). Decourcy’s enlistment of Jackie’s help backfires when Caysen is subpoenaed by the grand jury in a federal probe alleging that the Boston cops planted the drugs in Madeline Wilson’s car. It’s a tangled web that bodes well for an engrossing season, even before we get to the revelation that Kelvin and Anton are Grace Campbell’s kids.

The show still falters when it comes to Rohr’s home life. Jill Hennessy is a raw nerve as Rohr’s long-suffering wife Jenny; it’s a great performance, but a character that still feels ill-conceived. Neither Jackie nor Jenny will be up for any Parent of the Year accolades given their treatment of daughter Benedetta, now in Narcotics Anonymous and desperate to make her amends with her parents, neither of whom can deal with anything she tries to say. Here’s where City On A Hill could really take a cue from The Wire: Home life is fine for the occasionally drop-in, but it’s the job that keeps us watching.

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Stray observations

  • The name of the hospital where Jackie drops off his date is St. Eligius. If that sounds familiar, you may know it better as St. Elsewhere, from the long-running television show of the same name. This can only mean one thing: City On A Hill is part of the Tommy Westphall Universe. Given the involvement of writer/producer Tom Fontana, that may have been inevitable.
  • As usual, the episode title comes from one of Jackie’s barstool soliloquies on Boston lore, this one concerning the reason Bill Russell never shows up at the Garden for Celtics games despite winning eleven championships for the team. I won’t repeat the gory details here, but it’s not a particularly flattering account of race relations in the Hub.
  • Jimmy Ryan is already in the running for the “I can’t believe this character is still alive” award, and it’s hard to see how this knucklehead can stay that way for long.
  • Welcome to weekly coverage of City On A Hill! We’re operating on a trial basis here for the first three episodes, with the possibility of continuing if there’s enough demand. So spread the word, tell your friends, and let’s meet back here next week.
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My debut novel Charlesgate Confidential is now available from Hard Case Crime.