A staggering 22 years ago, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon got Boston almost right. Right enough, at least, for a certain small section of the city. Their film Good Will Hunting, which they wrote and starred in, felt true enough to a portion of my hometown that nearly everyone agreed they’d nailed it, and turned them movie stars as thanks.
In the years since, Damon has largely stayed away from any further Boston mythologizing—The Departed was his one major return visit—while Affleck pursued it further in his crime films Gone Baby Gone and The Town, depicting a city of vice and grit in a manner that was compelling, if not always convincing. Whatever organic realness Good Will Hunting had was lost to the easy pleasures of reliably satisfying cliché.
Which brings us to City on a Hill, a new Showtime series executive produced by Affleck and Damon, about crime-ridden early 1990s Boston and a pair of unlikely allies who aim to sorta clean it up. It’s maybe the most Boston-y thing the boys from Cambridge (which isn’t Boston, technically!) have done—if only because it’s trying to be really about Boston, its tribes and systems and idiosyncratic version of corruption.
There are moments in the three episodes of City on a Hill that I’ve seen where the show is maybe aspiring to ape The Wire’s sharp and insightful observation of Baltimore, a little of the HBO drama’s Dickensian sprawl. But this series, created by Chuck MacLean (based on an idea of Affleck’s, with producing help from Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson), is mostly a more sensational thing, full of tough-guy bravado and swaggering antiheroism. It’s engaging enough for all its hammy scenery-chewing and predictable tropes. If the show is aiming to be something more—an elevated survey of a complicated city, touching on race, violence, and the justice system—it certainly falls short: it looks good, but it can’t quite pass as prestige.
The action is at its biggest whenever Kevin Bacon, playing a coked-up drunkard of an F.B.I. agent named Jackie Rohr, is given a mound of speech and left to tear into it with a scattershot Boston accent. It’s a pleasure watching Bacon, still vulpine under the shambles, chomp his way through this show. Sure, the role is silly, and we’ve seen many versions of it before. But we haven’t seen Kevin Bacon do it—at least not at this particular timbre. Maybe ten years ago, people might have made a big deal about an actor of Bacon’s stature mucking it up on a TV, playing a guy who says bad things but mostly means well. Though that kind of thing has since become de rigueur, Bacon still finds some invention in all his grandstanding.
Offsetting that bluster is Aldis Hodge’s principled, ambitious young district attorney, Decourcy Ward. He’s arrived in Boston with a plan to shake things up, which includes going after corrupt cops. Determined and mostly humorless, Ward is the less fun of the two lead roles, a fact Hodge seems aware of as he sighs and glares his way through various scenes in dimly lit offices. I have the sense that Ward’s narrative will get more exciting as the season goes—his feud with a local pastor is just getting heated up at the end of the third episode, as is his maybe flirtation with a brassy investigator—but it’s slow to get off the ground, which means it often gets subsumed by all of Bacon’s business.
There’s a third leg of the story that is probably the most plainly entertaining part of the show, though it’s the one that peddles the most Boston drag. Jonathan Tucker, a native son who knows a certain Beantown drawl and gait, plays Frankie, a grocery worker (Purity Supreme!) who also robs armored cars in his spare time. As every character like this must, Frankie has a wayward younger brother, Jimmy (Mark O’Brien), who’s bound to get everyone in trouble. He also has a shrewd wife, Cathy (Amanda Clayton), who’s in on the action, and their squabbling/loving domestic life is the stuff of pure regional cheese. It’s the kind of smug approximation of working class Boston affect that should rankle, but that I instead find dumbly cozy.
The actual heisting is kept to a minimum, but there’s still a thrill in the inexorability that haunts Frankie and Jimmy’s scenes. We know the screw-up brother is gonna screw up real bad, and waiting for that shoe to drop while everyone bickers in staccato is mostly enjoyable. When City on a Hill is really embracing its soapiness, rather than trying to escape it, it has a more relaxed tempo, and the articulated grime of the show is put into better relief. I guess I am kind of a sucker for that kind of Boston fiction after all, the kind that finds its drama not in the realism of process and sober evaluation, but in family melodrama and small time crook scheming.
City on a Hill’s main challenge will be in trying to satisfy its higher ambitions with the stuff that works—chiefly, all of Bacon’s histrionics and the Town-esque criminal scramble. You probably can’t be too sophisticated a series when those are your two best assets. I hope the show figures that out as the season progresses, because too much more of its occasional bouts of pretension could sink the whole thing. So far, City on a Hill might not live up to the august allusions of its title, but it works just fine for the summer. There are worse places than Boston to visit this time of year.
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