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Kevin Bacon and Aldis Hodge Make 'City on a Hill' TV Worth Watching
June 16, 2019  | By David Hinckley

It takes just over 34 minutes for City on a Hill, a new drama revolving around the criminal justice system in Boston in the early 1990s, to reach the words “Whitey Bulger.” 

City on a Hill, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime, isn’t a Whitey Bulger story. It’s about an unlikely law enforcement alliance that takes on a gang of vicious thugs and ends up changing the criminal justice system. 

That’s plenty of story for one show to handle. But because it’s set in Boston, and Boston justice has always been an animal unto itself, evoking the ghost of Whitey Bulger is the easiest way to prepare the viewer for some of the quirks to come.  

Bulger was a career criminal. For starters, a multiple murderer. He also vanished from sight for several decades, securing a dual legacy as both a major Mob boss and a successful fugitive. 

He was eventually caught, when he was very old, and his death triggered a final round of stories on why he was not apprehended earlier. Some reports said it was because he actually worked with the cops, ratting out rivals. Others say the cops found him useful, because his operations cut down on the flow of anyone else’s illegal drugs into the neighborhoods he controlled. 

Whatever the real story, every rumor about Whitey Bulger’s life also tended to reinforce the image of the Boston police as a transactional outfit, dispensing their own justice as they felt circumstances warranted. 

Jackie Rohr (Kevin Bacon, top) isn’t an actual Boston cop. He’s an FBI agent stationed in Boston. He was a key player 10 years ago in a major bust and ever since then he’s been cruising through the whole system on his reputation. 

He’s regarded as a pain in the neck, because while has great investigative skills, he also has problems with drugs, drinking, and libido. He has a family that he loves and neglects as he seems to stumble aimlessly through most of his days. 

Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge, top) is the new guy in town. He’s not the new sheriff, though we have some indication that may be his long-term aspiration. 

Right now he’s an assistant DA, just in from Brooklyn, getting his first look at the Boston system and not liking it. 

For starters, he thinks too much of it is based less on justice than favors and deals. So sure enough, he hasn’t been there five minutes when Jackie Rohr asks him to cut a guy loose who shot a cop. Seems the guy is one of Jackie’s shady informants. 

When Ward declines, Jackie starts dismissing him to anyone who will listen as an “affirmative action hire.” That’s an allusion to the fallout in Boston from the real-life Charles Stuart case, in which a white man murdered his wife and convinced the police a black man did it. When the truth came out, the subsequent outrage forced the city to diversify its law enforcement ranks. 

In any event, Jackie and Decourcy don’t exactly bond. But then a previously small-time robber named Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker, top) commits a crime egregious enough that it becomes valuable to nail him. 

Jackie and Decourcy find themselves drawn together by their mutual interest in seeing that happen. Against strong odds and some internal resistance, they set out to stop Frankie – which also requires cracking one of the most rigid codes anywhere, the one where no one in Frankie’s native Charlestown ever talks to any cop about anything. 

Like previous dramas such as Mystic RiverCity on a Hill is saturated with Boston – its people, its streets, its sports teams, its accent. 

Unsurprisingly, the show was co-created by Boston booster Ben Affleck, who is joined as an executive producer by his Boston pal Matt Damon. Chuck MacLean had the other half of the original creative idea and Michael Cuesta directs, in a sharp-edged style. 

Bacon, a terrific and versatile actor, has found another great partnership here with Hodge. Tucker makes a worthy villain, a psychopathic killer who loves his own wife and kids and counts on the Charlestown code to keep him just outside the reach of the law. 

City on a Hill doesn’t tell the most epic story ever, and neither of these partners comes across as the kind of pure good guy who often fights bad criminals on television. 

Jackie and Decourcy make a fascinating team, though, and they’re good at tucking humor into the spaces between the very serious stuff they must overcome to accomplish their mission. 

City on a Hill isn’t completely unlike the good episodes of True Crime. That is to say, it’s worth checking out no matter how you feel about Whitey Bulger. 

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