Law enforcement officers violating citizens civil rights left and right. Cops acting more crooked and violent than the criminals they say they are trying to catch. Cops using and selling drugs they sometimes illegally take off users and dealers in shakedowns. Cops and federal agents out of control, and reform is more a politician’s phony promise than anything resembling reality.
No, it’s not the Baltimore Police Department’s infamous Gun Trace Task Force. It’s the world of cops and crime circa 1990s Boston as depicted in Showtime’s “City on a Hill,” which ends its first season at 9 p.m. Sunday as one of the sleepers of summer TV.
In a summer preview piece, I called the series promising but said I needed to see more than the first three episodes made available by Showtime to make a call. I have now seen enough to call “City on a Hill” a winner.
As entertainment, it has some of the finest acting, strongest dialogue and most evocative visuals of ethnic, urban, East Coast neighborhoods anywhere on television. I love that kind of visual texture.
As culture, I believe it could have something valuable to tell us about crime, corruption and what it is going to take for troubled cities like Baltimore to be made safe for citizens. I love TV that’s culturally relevant even more.
The acting starts with Kevin Bacon as Jackie Rohr, a corrupt, coke-sniffing, adulterous, strung-out F.B.I agent who is still semi-legendary in Boston law enforcement circles for having played a major role in taking down an organized crime family. But that was 10 years ago, and while Rohr still struts around like he is cock of the walk in the Boston world of cops and crime, he does so on shaky legs that often betray him on icy streets when he’s had too much to drink or snort before creeping back home to his wife and kids.
From the combed-back hair to the skeezy mustache and wiseguy wardrobe, Bacon’s Rohr is the physical embodiment of someone who lives as much in the world of criminals as he does law enforcement. If there was any doubt as to which realm he most belonged, it was erased at the end of Episode 8 when he paid a visit to a low life character who had sexually assaulted his daughter.
The violence of the scene, which played out in grand irony over Jackie DeShannon’s “Put a Little Love in Your Heart," jolted me out of my seat. I just stood there staring at the screen as the final credits rolled and the music played. What a curtain! I am way too old to lie about any aspect of how I truly connect to the screen. I loved the Old Testament violence of that moment. Loved it in all its righteous, bloody retribution.
But the producers didn’t leave me there intellectually in terms of the longer arc of the series. They revisited and resolved the shock and chaos of the brutality at the end of Episode 8 by opening Episode 9 with an urban, existential, nightscape featuring Rohr walking up to a man who is standing in a vacant lot tending a fire in a metal drum. Rohr is carrying a paper bag.
Visually, Rohr and the black man standing over the fire could be on the moon, it is so dark and bleak in this urban space. I was thinking “Waiting for Godot" as Rohr approached the flame.
“May I?” Rohr asked, taking the clothes he was wearing in the bloody scene at the end of Episode 8 out of the bag and dropping them into the fire.
“So, who’d you used to be?” Rohr asks as he and the man throwing sticks into the barrel watch the clothes burn.
After some back and forth as to what Rohr’s asking, the man says, “[Expletive], I had an apartment, a roommate. I went to work, wore a suit and tie. I never had to burn mine, though.”
He might be ragged looking, but he’s morally superior to this F.B.I. agent with blood on his hands.
“You know, this used to be a white neighborhood,” Rohr says. “Yeah. It was just as [expletive] then as it is now. Same sort of people, different color. Black families moved in; all our neighbors left. We stayed, though. It’s all we knew. You’re standing right where our kitchen used to be ― until my mother burned it down. Forty years. Forty [expletive] years, and it’s still just a big [expletive] pile of nothing. Nobody rebuilt it. Not us. Not the community. Not the [expletive] city. Everyone just looked, saw a [expletive] [expletive] and looked away as if this was the way things were supposed to be.”
There is a lot of sociology and resonance in that speech for people who live in and care about cities like Boston or Baltimore, and Bacon delivers it with the right mix of cosmic resignation and then personal resentment cum anger. I am not ready to call “City on a Hill” a great drama yet, but moments like that make it more than just another cop drama.
And Bacon is far from the only acting talent in the production. Aldis Hodge as assistant district attorney Decourcy Ward is just as strong in their scenes together. He’s playing an unpredictable and multi-dimensional character, and he’s got the chops to do it. There’s a fire in Ward’s belly and he’s clearly reform minded, but between his comes-from-money-cool wife nudging him in one direction and a world of institutional racism trying to squeeze him down every day, you do not know which way he’s going to go. He and Rohr make for an odd couple in the dangerous political and ethnic stew of Boston.
Representative of the supporting talent, Jill Hennessy plays Rohr’s wife with all the frustration, smoldering resentment and righteous rage you might expect of someone who has intimately absorbed a lifetime of Rohr’s lies, infidelities and empty promises.
Hennessy, who played Assistant District Attorney Claire Kincaid from 1993 to ’96 on “Law & Order" and starred in “Crossing Jordan” for six seasons on NBC after that, is only one of several outstanding supporting players here. I love “Law & Order,” which was produced in New York, for its Talmudic moral density and high level of East Coast acting talent, regularly drawn from the world of New York theater. I still watch the rerun marathons on the WE and Sundance channels.
“City on a Hill, which is made in Boston and New York, according to a Showtime spokeswoman, has that same kind of talent from top to bottom. I am hoping in Season 2 that its moral conversation deepens.
The potential is definitely there with Tom Fontana as an executive producer and show runner. He and producing partner, Barry Levinson, went as deep as any network crime drama’s moral discussion ever did through their character Detective Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) on “Homicide: Life on the Street,” another great ’90s series.
The greatest promise for “City on the Hill” is what it has to tell us about this profoundly tribalized moment in American life, even though it is set in the ’90s.
Boston was and is about as tribalized as any city can be, though Baltimore also being a city of neighborhoods and historical segregation is right up there.
Rohr is a character of tribes and tribal warfare. But he crosses several tribal boundaries in trying to establish a working relationship with Ward to bring down a white, working-class gang of armored car thieves.
Race is the most obvious difference between these two men in the racist world of Boston law enforcement. But there is also age, education and the fact that Rohr belongs to a tightly closed and highly dangerous tribe of crooked law enforcement officials, while Ward is bent on reform at whatever the cost.
I don’t expect Jackie Rohr to ever find salvation in this series. I think his sins are far too great and Fontana is too honest a TV story teller for that. And I am guessing that Ward will never find the kind of justice and racial progress he desires.
But amid all the tribalism and warfare in our media today — from social media platforms like Facebook that stoke conflict, to cable news outlets like Fox News that not only promote an ideology but denigrate non-believers — it would be nice to have a well-acted, socially-conscious, prime-time drama like “City on a Hill” for the next few years offering the possibility of a better, more equitable, multi-cultural, urban future for very old and deeply troubled American cities.