Ben Affleck and Matt Damon need to get over their Boston obsession.
I say this as someone who loved The Town, Gone Baby Gone and The Departed—all movies that explored the Boston crime underworld, the crooked police force that aided and abetted, and the long-standing ramifications of their corrupt interactions.
Showtime’s City on a Hill, which boasts both Affleck and Damon as executive producers, is so derivative of those three projects (you even can play six degrees of Kevin Bacon while you watch) that it’s laughable. I get why Affleck and Damon are so enamored with this particular slice of Boston history and lore; it’s fertile ground for a story. But you’ve had your fun and now it has to stop.
While watching these first episodes, I could almost hear a Saturday Night Live parody of series: “In a city that’s on a hill, one man fights for justice against a shady cop and a dishonest system, this fall on a very special episode of Law & Order: Boston.”
Just as I was conjuring up this fake ad, Kevin Bacon’s character actually says to another character as a vague threat: “give your mother my best.” All I could think about was that Mark Wahlberg skit “say hello to your mother for me.” And then just in case I didn’t get what was happening, a character listens to “Good Vibrations,” the Marky Mark classic. We. Get. It. City on a Hill. We. Get. It. You take place in Bahstan. Pipe down.
The series checks all the boxes in the Boston crime cliché playbook: the accents (Just stop trying. Please, I beg of you); the name dropping (Legal Seafoods, Doug Flutie and the defunct Lechmere all get shout-outs); the stereotypical take on Catholicism; the gratuitous female nudity and rampant coke snorting—all are well-trodden tropes. At least the pilot was filmed in Boston, which gives the series an air of authenticity; nothing bugs me more than shows allegedly taking place in Boston but then there are palm trees everywhere.
The story begins in the wake of the Charles Stuart scandal. In 1989 Charles Stuart’s pregnant wife, Carol, was attacked and murdered in an apparent car-jacking when Charles and Carol were on their way home from a childbirth class. Charles said a black man attacked them, and an innocent man named Willie Bennett was arrested. Charles’ brother later confessed that Charles himself had committed the crime, and Charles Stuart committed suicide.
The case made Boston’s already fraught racial tensions that much more heightened. The city was on edge, and it’s against this backdrop that City on a Hill is set. Enter Kevin Bacon as FBI agent Jackie Rohr, who regularly visits a prostitute (hence the unnecessary nudity), laments that you can no longer call a guy a “faggot” and is blatantly racist. “Excuse me Clarence Thomas,” is how he addresses Assistant District Attorney Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge), for example.
Bacon really leans into the role, and honestly I would much rather see him in this than another episode of, say, The Following or I Love Dick. He seems to be having a lot of fun with a character that allows him to go big or go bigger. Meanwhile, Hodge is terrific as the Brooklyn-born DA who is all set with the way Boston does business. He exudes calm in the chaos that surrounds him, and he’s a great protagonist to root for.
But Bacon and Hodge are both hampered by such nonsense in the script. “What do you want?” Jackie asks Decourcy in the pilot written by series creator Chuck MacLean. “I want to fuck the machinery in this bullshit city. I want to tear it all down for good,” he responds. That’s the way people talk on TV, not in real life.
Eventually Jackie and Decourcy find that they must work together to bring down a family, led by Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker), keen on robbing armored trucks. The unlikely allies have to find an accord to proceed, and that tenuous relationship lays the foundation for the series.
As for the women, they’re cut from the same stereotypical cloth we’ve seen so many times before in these series, and are emblematic of what can sometimes happen when there aren’t enough women in the writers room. We meet Jackie’s wife Jenny (Jill Hennessy) when she’s getting wax burned out of her ears (good times), having endured a lifetime of standing by her cheating husband who hasn’t had sex with her in years. Frankie’s tough wife Cathy (Amanda Clayton) advises her children “you cry and then you get even.” She also loves sex; we know this because she’ll even have it when she’s having her period. Welcome to the Madonna/Whore Complex 101. Only Decourcy’s ambitious wife Siobhan (Lauren E. Banks) and Sarah Shahi’s savvy investigator Rachel are given any dimension by the end of three episodes.
Showrunner Tom Fontana, whose previous series include the iconic St. Elsewhere and Homicide, knows how to commandeer a sprawling cast and story. But in City on a Hill there’s too much silliness to rein in and too many clichés to overcome.
But hey City on a Hill—say hello to your mother for me.
City on a Hill premieres Sunday, June 16th on Showtime.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog.