There aren't a lot of meat-and-potatoes crime dramas like City on a Hill anymore. The biggest percentage of the greatest dramas in TV history (The Wire, The Shield, Breaking Bad, etc.) are some variation of cops and crooks, but the genre has fallen out of style among cable channels in the search for the next Game of Thrones or Walking Dead. But Showtime is keeping the dream alive with City on a Hill, a classic tale of a corrupt American city.
The city is Boston in the early '90s (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are among the producers, obviously), a cesspool of racism, police brutality, officials on the take, and a code of silence among its residents that makes getting any crime solved nearly impossible. (Charlestown, where much of the action takes place, is legendary for its "I got nothing to say about nothing" attitude.) The good guy with a dark side is Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge), a crusading assistant district attorney who came to Beantown from Brooklyn and wants to "rip out the f---ed-up machinery in this bulls--- city. I want to tear it all down for good." Before the events of the show, he suggested jail time for any cop found crossing the line. He's a man alone, with no allies black, white, or blue — except Jackie Rohr (Kevin Bacon), a respected but crooked FBI agent with his own agenda.
Rohr — pronounced "Raw" in the show's thick Bahston accent — is a classic premium cable antihero. He's racist, sexist, fond of cocaine and prostitutes, and roughing people up. He skims off the top of his payments to informants because it's Massachusetts and "tax is a bitch." Bacon is having an absolute blast playing him. Rohr teams up with Ward to solve an armored truck robbery that will surely have far-reaching implications as the season unfolds (three episodes were provided for review).
City on a Hill isn't doing anything we haven't seen many times before, but it plays the hits well. Creator Chuck MacLean loads up the scripts with pithy one-liners, the characters all have shady motives that keep you on your toes, and the supporting cast is stocked with familiar faces like Jill Hennessy, Kevin Dunn, and Sarah Shahi, who all do good work. And since it's a Showtime show, it feels built to last. The network likes to keep its dramas on the air for a long time, and City on the Hill has the kind of architecture that can support multiple subplots, new cases and characters coming up as other parts of the city get explored, and different combinations of characters as alliances shift. The main plot through the first three episodes unfolds slowly, but the show is rarely boring (though it does need to figure out how to make Ward and Rohr's home lives feel important). It will continue to improve as the writers and the audience get to know the characters better. This feels like a show that will really start cooking in Season 2.
It also feels like a Showtime show in how it doesn't have the style or intelligence of the greatest cable dramas, and is more about being entertaining than having big ideas. But it's plenty entertaining, and it knows what it is.
TV Guide Rating: 3/5
(Disclosure: TV Guide is part of the CBS Corporation, Showtime's parent company.)