City on a Hill is a period cop series about trying to change the system from within, and encountering resistance — sometimes deadly resistance — everywhere you turn. It's a bit like the 1973 biographical crime film Serpico, except set in '90s Boston instead of '70s New York, and starring Kevin Bacon in the Al Pacino role.
But there are two major differences. One is that City on a Hill, though set against actual events and police scandals of the time, is a fictional story with fictional characters. And the other major difference reflects the TV complexity of our time — and of what we expect, or accept, out of an ambitious TV drama these days.
City on a Hill is more like David Simon's The Wire, examining motives and actions from every important angle, on all sides. And its protagonist, Bacon's FBI investigator Jackie Rohr, is less like a morally rigid Frank Serpico than one of the corrupt lawmen Serpico went undercover to expose. It's a meaty role, and Bacon inhabits the character instantly and completely.
The moral crusader in City on a Hill, at least at first, is Decourcy Ward, played by Aldis Hodge. He's an assistant district attorney, newly arrived from Brooklyn, who shows up with a personal mission to clean up the entire criminal justice system of Boston.
Once a series of armored car robberies grabs the headlines, Ward and Rohr become unlikely allies. For reasons as much personal and calculated as noble, they team up — not only to investigate and prosecute the case, but also to root out injustice in the precincts and courtrooms along the way. Bacon's Rohr becomes a very unlikely, very flawed hero here — a spiritual successor to Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue, or almost any of the cops on Homicide: Life on the Street.
The third main player here is Jonathan Tucker, who portrays Frankie Ryan, the head of the gang of armored-car robbers. We see events unfold from his point of view as well as from those of the FBI agent and the district attorney.
Though structured as a familiar, male-dominated cop drama, what's unusual about City on a Hill is that the women in the male characters' lives — wives, girlfriends, mothers, colleagues — figure so prominently. This makes room for some very strong scenes from some dynamic actresses, including, in the first three episodes alone, Jill Hennessy, Lauren E. Banks and Sarah Shahi. While the robbers are stealing sacks of money, these actresses are stealing scenes, one after another.
Behind the scenes, City on a Hill has an equally dynamic a lineup. The executive producers — there are a lot of them — include Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Affleck gave the series idea to Boston screenwriter Chuck MacLean, who gets credit as both series creator and also as the writer of the first episode. Other executive producers include Michael Cuesta from Homeland, who directs the opener; Jennifer Todd from Memento; and Barry Levinson, whose production partner, Tom Fontana, is the showrunner of City on a Hill.
And that's where the specialness of this 12-part series really shines through. Just as the main characters in City on a Hill fight against the status quo of corruption, Fontana, as a writer and producer, has fought just as diligently against the bland status quo of television. Fontana did some of the most groundbreaking writing on NBC's St. Elsewhere, then went on to Homicide: Life on the Street, where he and Levinson based their show on a book by a then-unknown crime reporter named David Simon — who later created The Wire.
Fontana brought quality drama to HBO by creating the pioneering prison series Oz, then was one of the first TV creators to produce a series for Netflix, with Borgia. Whether on network TV, cable or streaming, Fontana has left quality footprints wherever he goes into battle. And now he's at Showtime, with Bacon heading the charge. With City on a Hill, expect complexity. Expect the unexpected. And expect excellence. You won't be disappointed.