When we last saw FBI agent Jackie Rohr (Kevin Bacon) and assistant district attorney Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge) at the end of Season 1 of “City on a Hill,” they were dealing with the fallout from the takedown of a gang of armored car robbers. Rohr’s attempt to steal some glory for his fading career resulted in the death of a much loved law enforcement officer, while Ward’s promising career looked to be shredded by his handling of the prosecution of a member of the gang.
Still set in Boston in the 1990s, Season 2 of the Showtime series opens in a jailhouse interrogation room with Ward interviewing a Black teenager who is handcuffed to the table between them. It is raw and unrelenting.
“Did you say (racial epithet)?” Ward asks. “Is that what you called him?”
The handcuffed teen says nothing.
“Hey, you’re already (expletive), brother, so you might as well talk to me,” Ward continues. “Did you say that word to a police officer?”
“Yeah, I said that word,” the teen says.
“You said that word to a Black Boston police officer? You put the hard ‘r’ on it, too, didn’t you?” Ward adds.
After more back and forth, Ward asks the young man if he has heard of Eldridge Cleaver and the “price of hate.”
“Man, (expletive) you, talking about Eldridge Cleaver now. I’m in jail,” the teen replies angrily.
“So, you know Cleaver?” Ward says coolly. “So you’ve educated yourself somewhat.”
“Yeah, somewhat, just like you.”
“Then why are you in here, just like me?”
Racial epithets. Talk of how words matter. Talk of the manner in which words are said and how that matters, too. Talk of Eldridge Cleaver, author of “Soul on Ice” and Black Panther leader of the 1960s. Talk of education by an older Black man to a younger one.
It doesn’t take long with that opening to see this season of “City of a Hill” is going to try to be firmly in league with the larger racial reckoning in American life as the setting moves from a white, largely Irish, working class Boston neighborhood in Charlestown last year to a Black neighborhood and federal housing project in Roxbury. Each season is scheduled to explore a different part of this highly tribal city.
Based on a couple of preview episodes, I wasn’t initially sold on “City on a Hill” when it debuted in 2019. But I became a fan by the end of the first season. It has always engaged in somewhat of an exploration of race with the arrival of the reform-minded Ward, who is Black in a mainly white and largely racist law enforcement ecosystem in Boston. The two episodes made available to critics from this season, though, signal a major leap in the amount of attention placed on that discussion.
There is something else I like about the opening scene: the way it promises even more of Hodge. I like Bacon as an actor, and I came to this series initially because of him. While he is still front and center in the two episodes I saw, Hodge is definitely being showcased this season.
It starts with the scene described above, similar in several ways to scenes starring one of the greatest actors in the history of televised drama, Andre Braugher, in the role of Detective Frank Pembleton on “Homicide: Life on the Street,” a 1990s NBC drama filmed in Baltimore. The executive producers on that landmark police series about homicide detectives were Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, the same executive producers of “City on a Hill.” You can see their style throughout.
Hodge is not yet in Braugher’s league, but he is getting there. By the end of the season, who knows how close he might be. His character has a major journey ahead of him as he tries to salvage his career.
As much as Ward’s professional life is on decline, his wife’s is on the rise at the start of Season 2. Siobhan Quays (Lauren E. Banks), also a lawyer, is moving up in political circles. This puts pressure on the marriage. One scene finds her speaking before the Cambridge City Council about a planned rally intended to draw attention to policing in Boston.
“You admitted this coalition rally has nothing to do with Cambridge,” a white, male member of the council says to her as she responds to questions from the all-white panel.
“Do not put words in my mouth,” she replies.
“You said this rally is to draw attention to the policing in Boston,” he persists
“The policing in greater Boston is a drain on the greater metro economy. Resources wasted, money poorly spent, the people of Cambridge should know where their taxes are going.”
“What do you say to those that think holding this rally in a place like Cambridge is an implicit threat?” he asks.
“A larger part of your constituents might be offended that you assume they’re just as afraid of Black people as you are, councilman.”
Talk about resonance, I could not help but think of Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson’s recent remarks about not being afraid of the mob of Donald Trump supporters that stormed the Capitol Jan. 6, because “those were people who love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law.” But if “the tables had been turned” and those storming the Capitol had been “tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and antifa protesters,” he said he might have been concerned.
I like drama that resonates with social reality, like this does. It not only creates greater verisimilitude for the series, it also makes us think, in this case, about racism by people in power and how truth can effectively be spoken to them. For better or worse, television does symbolically offer models of how we might handle tensions and challenges in our real lives.
In going for that verisimilitude, “City on a Hill” uses language intended to feel authentic in depicting the criminal, law enforcement and domestic realms it explores. As the missing words in the description of the opening scene at the start of this column indicate, the language can be raw, brutal and offensive to some, particularly the racial and ethnic epithets and slurs.
I would not try to talk anyone out of their decision if they say they won’t watch because of the language. But my feeling is that it represents the way some people talk in real life, and I cannot stand TV drama that feels phony. Furthermore, this show is airing on premium cable, which means you have to go out of your way and pay more to receive the service. If not on premium cable, then where? The First Amendment doesn’t mean much if realistic drama can’t find a place somewhere on mainstream television.
“City on a Hill” is one of those series that makes television better ― or at least more relevant. Beyond its social relevance and power to challenge tribal thinking, it is fine entertainment.
I barely mentioned Bacon, but should point out that he makes the unredeemable Jackie Rohr into a figure you can’t take your eyes off as he struts through the Boston crime and law enforcement worlds like he owns them, even as he correctly feels his power slipping away with age and a lifetime of horrible choices.
Jill Hennessey as his guilt-ridden and unfulfilled wife, Jenny, is so intense you can’t help but feel her character’s pain. And Mark O’Brien, the bank robber and FBI informant from Season 1, returns with a new plan to buy hard drugs in Roxbury and sell them in South Boston. He stole almost every scene he was in last year, and he is right back at it in the first two episodes of Season 2.
Here’s hoping the full season lives up to the promise of the first two hours.
“City on a Hill” airs at 10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime.
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.