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City On A Hill struggles to transcend the clichés of the Boston crime genre

Kevin Bacon, Aldis Hodge
Photo: Francisco Roman (Showtime)
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Three years ago, Seth Meyers skewered the proliferation of Beantown crime thrillers with a fake trailer for Boston Accent that nailed the tropes established in films like The Departed and The Town. That should have been a clear signal that future such projects would be well-served by putting a fresh spin on the material, but Meyers could cut together a sequel to Boston Accent using only clips from Showtime’s new series City On A Hill. It’s got everything short of a cop and his informant arguing whether to meet in Swampscott or Braintree… and that could happen yet.

It’s no surprise to learn that City On A Hill creator Chuck MacLean’s inspiration comes from an idea by Ben Affleck (who co-executive produces the show with Pearl Street partner Matt Damon); the first three episodes made available for review play a lot like The Town: The Series. As in Affleck’s 2010 film of Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves, the FBI is on the hunt for armored car robbers from Charlestown, the armored car robbery capital of the world. The good guys don’t play by the rules, and the bad guys have their own code of honor. The leader of the thieves is a slick professional; his sidekick is a volatile fuck-up.

There are differences, however. People of color are often invisible in these stories, so credit MacLean (and City On A Hill showrunner Tom Fontana, the TV veteran of Oz and Homicide: Life On The Street) for putting the character of Assistant District Attorney Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge) front and center alongside the flashier role of FBI Agent Jackie Rohr (Kevin Bacon). Set in 1992, the series posits Ward as an outsider from Brooklyn brought in to serve on the real-life St. Clair Commission, an investigation into the Boston police department spurred on by the Charles Stuart debacle. (Stuart was a white man who murdered his pregnant wife and told the police that the killer was African-American, a lie they swallowed all too easily.) His work on the commission earns him few friends on the BPD when he begins his new job with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office.

He does find a potential ally in Rohr, a name seemingly chosen for its comedic possibilities when spoken with a Boston accent. Kevin Bacon’s FBI agent is casually racist, casually corrupt, and casually cheating on his wife Jenny (Jill Hennessy), at least until he has an STD scare in the second episode. Rohr and Ward clash initially, but despite their differing methods, it doesn’t take them long to realize they’re both after the same thing. Boston has become too violent, too awash in drugs and guns, and the old system isn’t getting it done anymore. Their partnership represents the birth of the Boston miracle, otherwise known as Operation Ceasefire, a targeted law enforcement program that drastically reduced the city’s murder rate in the mid-90s.

On the other side of the law are Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker), armed robber and produce stocker at the local grocery, and his idiot brother Jimmy (Mark O’Brien), who worms his way into Frankie’s crew and threatens to bring the whole criminal enterprise crashing down at every turn. After a botched armored car robbery that ends in the murder of three guards, the Ryans are drawing the heat and one member of the crew is talking to the feds. You’ll recognize home life with the family from just about any onscreen depiction of Boston’s working class Irish: there’s a lot of screaming and “Fack you!” is the most popular term of endearment.


Despite its overreliance on stock elements, City On A Hill is not without its pleasures, chief among them a strong cast headlined by Kevin Bacon having, by all appearances, the time of his life. Employing a voice that suggests Rohr gargles with gravel, Bacon revels in the character’s sheer sleaze, whether he’s firing off insults or snorting a line while singing along with Rush. Aldis Hodge has a far less showy part as the generally strait-laced Ward, but currents of rage, frustration, and righteousness bubble under his restrained performance. The supporting cast is peppered with familiar faces, including Veep’s Kevin Dunn as Ward’s boss, Cathy Moriarty as Jimmy’s mother, and Kevin Chapman, who has spent most of his career alternating between playing Boston cops and crooks. (He’s a cop this time.)

Of the women, Amanda Clayton fares best as Frankie’s wife Cathy, the true brains of the operation who gives as good as she gets. As an investigator assigned to Ward’s case, Sarah Shahi recalls Marisa Tomei’s Mona Lisa Vito from My Cousin Vinny. Jill Hennessy has the most thankless role, that of Rohr’s long-suffering wife Jenny; her emotionally vulnerable performance suggests she’s overqualified for the Carmela Soprano knockoff she’s given to play. (There’s even a Hot Priest who starts dropping by the house for counseling.) And yes, almost everyone does the accent, with wildly variable success.


City On A Hill is watchable enough, with strong production values and some great location work, and it’s possible that the show will find its footing after a shaky start, as Billions, its predecessor in this Showtime slot, did. In its first three episodes, however, it’s far too dependent on what has come before. Boston has other stories to tell, and voices that are rarely heard...some even without the accent.

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About the author

Scott Von Doviak

My debut novel Charlesgate Confidential is now available from Hard Case Crime.