By Alan Yudman
Showtime’s CITY ON A HILL is a lot. A lot of story, a lot of corruption, a lot of cast and a lot of “chowdah”. Set in Boston in the late 1980’s, the show features a corrupt FBI Agent (Kevin Bacon), and an ambitious and idealistic young prosecutor (Aldis Hodge) who team up with the goal of getting rid of corruption in Boston. Then there is a crew of robbers who are ripping off armored cars lead by Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker) who is trying to keep his family together while “taking care of it”(his signature response when a problem arises).
The Matt Damon/Ben Affleck produced show is well acted and has a lot of potential for exploring the DEPARTED/BLACK MASS territory in more depth. But instead of going deep on a couple of storylines, the show casts a wide net. At times it feels a mile wide and an inch deep. The cast is enormous and talented. In addition to Bacon, Hodge and Tucker there are (deep breath).. Jill Hennessy, Mark O’Brien, Lauren E. Banks, Kevin Dunn, Amanda Clayton, Sarah Shahi, Jere Shea, Cathy Moriarty, James Remar. All have significant roles, so as you can see if you have that many mouths to feed someone will go hungry. In this case it’s the audience.
Surrounding the main plot of the heist and investigation are Bacon’s family drama, Hodge’s wife’s career, and Tucker’s family drama. And there are subplots piled on subplots. It never gets confusing because nothing is explored in any depth. For example, Tucker’s oldest daughter has obviously witnessed some type of trauma that is giving her nightmares. We sort of find out what it’s connected to but never explicitly learn what happened. Hennessy is Bacon’s aggrieved and tormented wife who has to deal with his attitude and infidelity. We find out she’s been abused as a child, but so late in the series it’s treated more as a bombshell than a piece of a larger story. Shahi is a state police detective who references her Persian heritage and how she tries to pass as one of Boston’s Aqua Netted natives. She has a wonderfully honest and well-acted scene where she admits she’ll never be one of “them”. But once that threat is pulled, it is cut and disposed of. Plus, that stated goal at the beginning of the series, cleaning up the corrupt Boston and Suffolk County system, is never really explored or fulfilled.
Those are just a few examples. What keeps this from being an unwatchable mess are Bacon and Hodge (and in a smaller role, Shahi). Their working tension and scheming behind each other’s backs is the heart of the series. Bacon puts on his tough FBI agent façade but is tormented by his mother-in-law and his reputation. He buries himself in cocaine and drowns his sorrows in booze. He is a bastard and hard to like. Hodge’s ambition is thwarted by Bacon’s hubris and his own idealism. But he plays the calm, calculating prosecutor very well.
If Showtime decides on a second season for CITY ON A HILL, here’s hoping they decide to drop some of the B, C and D plots and give more time and depth to whatever the main story will be. Thatwould be bet ter for the actors and the audience.