To put it mildly, City on a Hill Is very Boston. The 1992-set pilot looks at the city at a time when crime and corruption were rampant. A fictionalized account of an initiative known as “The Boston Miracle” – created to target youth violence in the city, City teams Kevin Bacon as “on the edge” FBI agent, Jackie Rohr, with a new District Attorney transplanted from Brooklyn played by Aldis Hodge.
So, how Boston is it? City on a Hill is shot on location, produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and almost every character sounds like they just came from “pahking the cah in the pahking lot.” As if to land the sledgehammer on the nose, the first episode rolls into the credits with a song by…you guessed it, Boston. That’s not to say that it doesn’t feel authentic. It does. The set-up is intriguing and gritty. Bacon and Hodge have the potential to make for an enjoyable odd couple too.
Really, how much you like City on a Hill will probably come down to how you feel about Kevin Bacon’s performance. I’m going to resist the temptation to say that Bacon is a bit hammy here by saying I’m not going to say it while still saying it. Ham and Bacon puns aside, Bacon is in full live wire mode here. When I think of Bacon as an actor, I find his best work to be when he underplays in films like Mystic River or Frost/Nixon. He can be effective when he turns it up – see Sleepers, JFK, and Wild Things (okay, maybe don’t see Wild Things). All I’m saying is if you like Bacon at an 11, here, he’s a 13. Whether he’s snorting coke in his car cranking up Rush’s Tom Sawyer, or defending himself with a large fish (no shit) against the owner of an Asian restaurant, Bacon’s gravely-voiced (probably from chewing all the scenery) FBI agent is all id. In its way, it’s entertaining. It’s just that it’s a lot.
Perhaps thankfully, the two other leads on the show counter Bacon’s boil with simmer. Hodge gets his big leading man break in City on a Hill, and he looks poised to make the most of it. He gives a confident, charismatic performance as a DA who wants to burn down the lawless structure of the city. As a man of color dealing with a city often known for its racial animus, Hodge is smooth on top while also making you aware of the roiling anger below the surface. An emotion he must contain while navigating a justice system in a city that hold his blackness outwardly (and casually) against him. Hodge’s imposing physical stature (the threads on his one-size-too-small shirtsleeves seem to be holding on for dear life) coupled with his just patient enough reserve makes for a star-making turn.
On the other side of the law, Jonathan Tucker’s mid-level gangster is the real star of episode one. Tucker has been doing fabulous work in recent years (especially on the criminally underseen Kingdom) and he continues his run of excellence here. As the leader of a crew pulling an armored car heist (done with the gang in hockey masks and evoking the heist at the beginning of HEAT) that goes badly astray, Tucker is both ruthless and compassionate. The former is for anyone in his way. The latter is for those closest to him, including his ne’er-do-well younger brother, played by Mark O’Brien as the type of guy who still goes out shooting at mailboxes for fun. I’ve long thought Tucker should be a big deal. I’m hoping that City on a Hill is the vehicle to take him to the next level of stardom. Because if he’s in it, whatever it is will be better for it.
The show’s pilot does labor with an issue that afflicts many debut episodes. There’s a lot of story to set up and all the characters to introduce. For the moment, City on the Hill is more promise than delivery, but that’s to be expected. For all my flags about Bacon’s performance and the somewhat unwieldy, plot-driven nature of the first episode, you don’t have to squint to see that City on a Hill could be great. It knows its time and place well. I even found Bacon starting to grow on me over that first hour. And despite being overly on-brand, when those ecstatic, chugging, guilty-pleasure-ridden guitar chords of More Than A Feeling burst out of my television speakers at show’s end, I was already signed on for episode two.