Friday, June 14, 2019

TV REVIEW: Showtime's 'City on a Hill'

Showtime will premiere its new original drama series City on a Hill on Sunday, June 16 at 9/8c. The drama stars Kevin Bacon, Aldis Hodge, Jonathan Tucker, Mark O'Brien, Kevin Chapman, Jere Shea, Lauren E. Banks, Amanda Clayton and Jill Hennessy.

Read on for my thoughts on the new drama after screening its first three episodes.

There is nothing all that original with Showtime's new drama City on a Hill. It's the latest show trying to mimic the success of The Wire. It's a crime thriller set in Boston - and never lets you forget that fact. It's set in the early 1990s and makes references to a lot of cultural events that happened at that specific time. The show absolutely succeeds in making the audience imagine this world and feel like the characters are actually living in it. That specificity is apparent in every single visual produced. However, the show itself is a conventional case of corruption disrupting how a city is managed. The leading men clash over their ideological views of how to best protect and serve Boston. They eventually find a way to work together because of a case that could bring them both notoriety and allow them to achieve their ultimate goals. It's fairly simple as a premise goes. The only thing that really elevates it beyond the standard genre thriller is the cast. Kevin Bacon is phenomenal as FBI Agent Jackie Rohr, who is essentially corruption come to life. Meanwhile, this show is the latest example of Aldis Hodge having breakout star potential. He plays the more straight-laced Decourcy Ward, a transplant to the city who wants to root out all of the corruption. The back-and-forth these men have is really the spark that ignites the passion at the center of the story. It's the dynamic that may encourage the audience to keep tuning in to see how events will continue to unfold. But that's really the most encouraging sign in the early going.

Moreover, the actual plot is slow. It takes awhile to establish the central premise. Jackie and Decourcy clash on a completely separate case before they decide to team up. They only do so because of a robbery crew that has made headlines in the city. That represents another section of characters who are varying degrees of interesting. Jonathan Tucker plays the leader of the crew. He plays against type as the calm and collected master planner who has a firm handle on the world around him. That then stands in stark contrast to Mark O'Brien who plays his brother, Jimmy, the loose cannon of the family. Jimmy only seems to appear when he needs help. He is unstable and inconsistent. And yet, he represents many different ways of exploding the livelihoods for many people in this world. But again, that is familiar territory in this particular genre. The criminals plotting their grand scheme have things go awry when the time comes for it. That then inspires hope amongst the investigators that they could actually catch the crew that terrorized the city for a little bit. That could lead to Decourcy and Jackie's stars rising in the city. Of course, that's a fate that Decourcy actually wants. He is frequently looked at with suspicion because he's a prosecutor who wishes to put cops in jail. That plays as a rejection of one corner of his life. And yet, his own community sees him as a sellout who forgets exactly where he came from in order to amass this power. Decourcy is always walking that fine line and never feels like he gets the respect or admiration that he believes he deserves. He may not earn that. But at least he has a stable marriage - even though the show struggles to make his wife, Siobhan (Lauren E. Banks) all that interesting. That also stands out from the volatile personal life that Jackie has. He is essentially a bunch of cliches all wrapped into one character. He is a clear antihero who bends the rules to his personal benefit. He is cheating on his wife, Jenny (Jill Hennessy), who is completely oblivious to the man she is married to. Plus, he is constantly snorting drugs in the hopes that it gets people to see him as less of a serious threat. It's a lot to take. Bacon makes it manageable. He's clearly having fun. It just feels like very familiar territory.

And yet, there is the sense that all of this could collide together in a very exciting way eventually. The show doesn't really aspire to make distinct episodes. The plot mostly just rolls from one to the next. It's a novelistic approach to storytelling that rarely works in this medium. Only some master storytellers are able to pull that off. David Simon - from the previously mentioned The Wire and HBO's current great drama The Deuce - does so with masterful ease. So do some of the people who worked under him for a long time - like Eric Overmyer who heads Amazon's Bosch. The Showtime drama did something very notable in hiring Tom Fontana as showrunner. He too has mastery of this very specific skill. He actually gave Simon his first writing job on Homicide: Life on the Street. As such, the hope remains that all of this will eventually add up to more than the sum of the individual parts in the early going. Right now though, it presents mostly as a mess that doesn't quite do service to the caliber of the talent involved. Hennessy and recurring guest star Sarah Shahi do the most with their roles. They are the most active female characters in the piece. But they both seem significantly overqualified for the specific stories as well. Plus, the Person of Interest reunion between Shahi and Kevin Chapman goes completely unrealized in the first three episodes. That's more of an issue that pertains to Chapman's character being initially unimportant. Plus, I haven't even gotten into the inconsistency of the Boston accents in the show. Everyone earnestly tries to pull one off. Bacon is really the only person who succeeds in doing so on a consistent basis. The rest are mostly just distracting while trying to give legitimacy to the project. As such, it's a little hard to recommend the new show at this moment in time. It may get better. Or it may not.