“City on a Hill,” which gets underway Sunday on Showtime, is a classic drama of cops, criminals and politicos. Set in Boston in the early 1990s, it ostensibly has to do with what’s known as the Boston Miracle, a successful campaign to reduce violence and corruption in the city — though that’s not yet obvious from the three episodes (out of a total 10) available to review.
The title phrase has been circulating in political speeches for more than half a century, since president-elect John F. Kennedy borrowed it from a 1630 address by Puritan John Winthrop, in turn quoting the Sermon on the Mount: “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” Ronald Reagan added “shining” to impart a kind of heavenly glow to the American project, but Winthrop’s meaning — as he packed his first boatload of colonists off to, yes, Boston — was more along the lines of, “Don’t mess up, because God and everyone are watching.” An appropriate title, then, and also an ironic one.
The series is like many things you may have seen before. Yet just as new music may be made entirely out of samples, creating something at once fresh and familiar, so too can a decent television series be constructed out of existing parts.
Executive producers include well-known greater Boston products Ben Affleck (who approached creator Chuck MacLean with the germ of an idea) and his partner-pal Matt Damon, bringing the local cred. They’re joined by Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, whose “Homicide: Life on the Street” was a model of the naturalistic, character-driven, site-specific procedural. (Fontana is also the showrunner here.) Through David Simon, who worked on “Homicide” (and wrote the book on which it was based), they are also grandfathers to “The Wire” and “Show Me a Hero,” big-canvas civic dramas that “City on a Hill” doesn’t seek to emulate, exactly, but with which it shares concerns. (“Deadwood,” another story of metropolitan evolution, is a cousin, and a closer one than the many New England crime dramas the new series superficially resembles.)
An armored car robbery goes bad, and a drug raid goes bust; intersecting ripple effects rock boats and upset apple carts, to mix a metaphor, and suddenly the stability of an interlaced political, legal and illegal ecosystem is endangered. “All those cops looking to reach their pensions, lawyers in the DA’s office only there because they know someone; a crusader threatens their way of life,” new-to-the-department prosecutor Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge), a crusader, is told. That he is a black man out of Brooklyn only amplifies his outsider status. Hodge plays him as deceptively laconic.
“I like what my job should be,” Ward tells his wife, Siobhan (Lauren E. Banks), who comes from money — they are nearly the only people of means we glimpse in these early episodes.
Kevin Bacon, who entered pop consciousness by way of Levinson’s 1982 film “Diner,” plays Jackie Rohr, an FBI agent in whose way fate throws Ward. They will have to learn to work together and perhaps grow to like each other in the bargain. (Take away the guns and the badges and these stories are rom-coms underneath.) Rohr has all the usual bad habits of his fictional kind, including drugs, infidelity, small acts of extortion, and singing along to heavy rock on the car radio. Despite his stated desire to “sail eight years to my pension,” though, there’s some vestigial impulse within him to do good — while advancing his own interests.
Deeper than he lets on, or perhaps can quite remember, Rohr quotes the muckraking early 20th-century journalist Lincoln Steffens, as well as William Blake and the now-obscure satirical novelist James Branch Cabell: “One has to pay at all times, and sometimes one has to pay rather dearly, for being honest.” And though he’s a mess of a person — he has informants, but no real friends — more than any other character here, he seems to be enjoying himself. (As does Bacon, playing him without vanity.)
Rohr likes power, but what power he has is local; though semi-legendary, he’s as small-time as the crooks he’s chasing. Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker), from robbery-happy Charlestown (like the figures in Affleck’s 2010 film “The Town”), is the man behind the armored car heist, so blue collar that crime is just one of his jobs — he’s an honest working stiff who’s crooked on the side. Brother Jimmy (Mark O’Brien) is a human wild card, good for sudden dramatic twists and random scenes of sex and violence.
In order to ensure that “City on a Hill” isn’t just dudes from Cambridge to Quincy, the series sets itself up as a three-family drama. There are wives and daughters (troubled or troublesome) and mothers-in-law. Cathy Ryan (Amanda Clayton) handles her family’s ill-gotten gains; Jenny Rohr (Jill Hennessy) is trying to fill the gap created by her husband’s inattention; Siobhan wants to mobilize the community against violence, with partners of whom Ward does not wholly approve. It’s not a radical dramatic idea to make the criminal’s marriage healthier than the cop’s. (There is one female character related to no one: an investigator, played by Sarah Shahi, assigned to Ward. The part feels like an inheritance from Archie Panjabi’s Kalinda on “The Good Wife.”)
The period detail stays on the right side of showy, but most important, people here inhabit spaces appropriate to their class and character. The acting builds out the reality too: The performances sell the material, even when the material seems poorly motivated, confusing or just unlikely. The stars pull their weight, but keep an eye on Kevin Dunn as Ward’s weary police captain; J. Bernard Calloway; Lee Tergesen as a bookie; and the great Cathy Moriarty as the mother of gangsters.
There is some effort to relate the series to contemporary troubles; 25 years is not all that long in the slow-bending arc of the moral universe. When Rohr brings up Roy Cohn, an early mentor to our current president, his words seem to refer to the president himself: “What Cohn knew was that if you held on to the lie … against all evidence, there was nothing anybody could do.” When Jenny tells her priest, “All due respect, Father, I’m getting sick of men telling me what to do,” one hesitates to tell her that a quarter-century later she might be saying the same thing.
And when police arrive to a shooting where Ward was present, he raises his hands as they enter.
“Why do you got your hands up?” asks an officer.
“So there’s no mistakes,” Ward replies.
But perhaps I am projecting.
‘City on a Hill’
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd