June 16, 2019

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “City On A Hill”


CITY ON A HILL – Sunday 9PM on Showtime

Showtime’s new CITY ON A HILL wears so many influences on its sleeve that there’s hardly any garment to be seen.  The show hails from Executive Producers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and it’s sort of a subtweet of Affleck’s The Town, with a plot about Boston-area armored truck robbers and the lawmen who are after them.  But it’s also a playlist of Showtime templates, especially Ray Donovan‘s mix of Boston-born crooks, high-level corruption (see also Billions and Black Monday) and a big-city blue-collar ethos (Shameless and The Chi).  Add to that additional Executive Producers Tom Fontana (who serves as showrunner for first-time series creator Chuck MacLean) and Barry Levinson, and the vibes of Homicide:  Life On the Street aren’t far off, not to mention Baltimore monarch The Wire.

Perhaps over the course of its ten episodes, City On A Hill will display a personality of its own, but that’s not evident in its pilot, written by MacLean and directed by Michael Cuesta.  The show is a fictional version of a piece of 1990s Boston history, and as it’s told here, it revolves around a trio of by-the-numbers protagonists.  Jackie Rohr (Kevin Bacon) is a cynical FBI agent who spends as much time screwing around on his long-suffering wife (Jill Hennessey) and snorting coke as he does on his job, but somewhere deep underneath, he still has dreams of cracking down on the unconvictable criminals around him.  Those ideals are unconvincingly lit by Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge), a new Boston Assistant District Attorney who’s black, from pre-gentrification Brooklyn, married to a monied wife (Lauren E. Banks), and hostile to the white old-boys network that runs things.  Rohr and Ward team up like buddy cops to find the robbers who they don’t know yet are led by Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker), a working-class criminal with three kids and hot-headed brother Jimmy (Mark O’Brien, channeling Jeremy Renner in The Town).

The cast is top-drawer.  Bacon seems enthused by Rohr’s sleaze moustache and slippery morality, Hodge is angrily virtuous, and the supporting cast includes Rory Culkin, Kevin Chapman and the always-welcome Kevin Dunn.  The hour has some snappy dialogue, and there’s good work from Cuesta, production designer Henry Dunn and cinematographer Joe Collins, who make the locations and sets look believably lived-in.  There’s just little here that doesn’t feel second- (if not third- or fourth-) hand.

The more recent series that City On A Hill resembles is CBS’s quickly-canceled The Red Line, which attempted a similar urban X-ray of Chicago’s racial and political faultlines.  Red Line had its own problems, including soapiness, sentimentality and the limitations of airing on a broadcast network, but it stretched in some distinctive directions, like mixing sexual identity along with the other issues it covered.  City On A Hill appears to be content with retracing the ambitions of the many works that came before it in a familiar, comfortable way.  At a TV moment where ambitious projects seem to arrive on a weekly basis, that may not be enough.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."