Did you see Kevin Bacon’s return Friday, 7 June 2019 with the series premiere of City on a Hill? Based on an original idea by Ben Affleck and Chuck MacLean, inclusive of Bacon, Aldis Hodge, Amanda Clayton, Kevin Dunn and Jill Hennessy, the new Showtime series features an extraordinary assemblage of television talent. While the series premiere was made available to online viewers Friday, 7 June 2019, the televised viewing will not take place on Showtime until nine days later, Sunday, 16 June 2019.
What is City on a Hill About?
City on a Hill, set in Boston during the early 1990s, is a period crime drama. As period dramas go, City on a Hill is quintessentially an American production. Except for possibly North & South, City on a Hill does not have all the fanciness one typically associates with period pieces produced across the pond.
During the 1990s, Boston was synonymous with a violent criminal element. It was not as much encouraged but emboldened by certain law enforcement agencies. Until everything changed, corruption and tribalism within the agencies were a way of life for many Bostonians.
The idea, having come from both Affleck and MacLean, is a fictional interpretation of Operation Ceasefire. Operation Ceasefire, a problem-oriented policing initiative which was implemented in 1996 specifically designed to target the growing youth gun violence issues Boston was facing, is best known as the Boston Miracle.
After District Attorney Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge) arrives in Boston, the Brooklyn attorney forms a seemingly unlikely alliance with FBI veteran Jackie Rohr (Kevin Bacon). Rohr, a corrupt but somewhat venerated FBI agent, has a stake in maintaining the status quo.
Together, when Ward and Rohr take on the Ryan family, the two men find they have common ground. The Ryan family, Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker), Jimmy Ryan (Mark O’Brien) and Tommy Hayes (James Michael Cummings), is a formidable family armoured car robbers from Charlestown. As a result, with significant growth to the case, the backdraft eventually encompasses the entirety of Boston’s criminal justice system.
The Series Premiere
In October 1989, a white man – Charles “Chuck” STUART – killed his wife, wounded himself and then claimed the killer was black.
During the investigation, the Boston Police Department used intimidation and coercion, eventually charging a black man.
But then Stuart’s brother told the truth, leading Stuart to commit suicide… and all hell broke loose.
Quickly transitioning to a scene of a funeral, we find FBI agents Jackie Rohr (Kevin Bacon) and Clasby (Michael O’Keefe) arriving to pay their ‘respects.’ Considering their conversation on entering the reception hall, for what was expressed, ‘respects’ is too strong a word. There is no evidence of ‘respect’ in the words Rohr uses for Stuart. What would one expect? This is a guy that had an innocent man arrested, charged and sent to prison for his wife’s murder and then committed suicide because his brother revealed the truth. Rohr is seemingly upset because “it’s a civil place to live now.” Clasby is right. It’s not 1983 anymore. Society is changing.
The first time we see Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge) is when he is getting coffee with a reporter. On entry to the coffee shop, two cops immediately see the district attorney at the coffee shop counter. Because of Ward’s work, one of the cops takes offence by the DA’s presence and deliberately knocks into Ward. Ward’s coffee spills down his coat. If this were anyone else, there is a good chance the DA would have simply walked out of the premises without a word said. Ward does not take kindly to the cop’s attitude. As far as Ward is concerned, he was only doing his job.
Ward believes cops should be held accountable for their actions. The DA walks up to the counter and stares directly at the cops for a moment. Ward catches the attention of the person behind the counter and tells him, “Their coffee is on me. Keep the change.” Ward turns to the cop that knocked his coffee from his hand and thanks the officer for his service.
This scene marks the end of the pre-opening credits sequence. Introductions to the two principal characters, Rohr and Ward, have been made.
A Search Warrant is Being Typed
The opening scene of the series premiere begins with a search warrant being typed on a typewriter. If anything screams period drama, it is the use of a typewriter rather than a computer to complete a search warrant. Who uses a typewriter to complete search warrants anymore? No one, probably, but it’s not a contemporary drama. It’s set in the 1990s. In the period in which the drama is set, the likelihood of individuals processing a search warrant via a computer is remote. Even though computers were a thing, the old tried and true methods were still in operation.
J.R. Minogue (Kevin Chapman) and his team execute a search warrant but enter the wrong apartment. Instead of entering 217, the door to apartment 127 is kicked down. On entry to the apartment, police officers find two men watching an animated television series. In the confusion, Stevie Burke (Owen Burke) is shot in the leg and one of the men bolts from the apartment via the French windows. Minogue is not quick enough to stop him from escaping.
Ward is not amused by Nathan Rey (Kevin Dunn) assigning him to prosecute the Roach case. Even though Burke was shot, from a prosecutorial perspective, the police executed their search warrant on the wrong apartment. This is a significant problem. Consequently, it should not be the “slam-dunk conviction” Rey thinks it is. No judge in their right mind would allow the way the search warrant execution went down to pass without serious investigation. While Rey tells Ward he’d “better not f*** it up,” anyone with a modicum of intelligence will recognise the police already sc***ed the pooch by incorrectly executing the search warrant.
The Bar is Closed
As soon as Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker) arrives at the bar, Mac The Bartender (Tommy Cummings) immediately tells everyone else in the premises the bar is closed. Despite disgruntled sounds coming from the bar patrons, they leave the premises without too much fuss. Shortly thereafter, a shifty group of guys enters the premises. They are unquestionably up to no good. They are there to acquire guns and ammunition. Inclusive of an AK-47, guns and ammunition is what the trio got.
In the Cells
Rohr goes to the cells to see why Clay Roach (Rory Culkin) is locked up. Roach is one of Rohr’s informants. Rohr correctly tells Roach he should not have been in the area when the police raided the apartment. It apparently does not matter to the FBI agent that the police raided the wrong apartment. The thing that matters is that he was there. Consequently, unless Rohr can pull some strings with the district attorney’s office, Roach is facing a court appearance.
An Unwelcome Discovery
Ward is referenced by one of his colleagues (Lewis D. Wheeler) as being “an affirmative action” hire. Affirmative action was around in the 1990s. The British terminology associated with the same phenomenon is ‘positive discrimination.’ The 2010 Equality Act firmly establishes the principles of equality and their respective implementation but that is in the United Kingdom, not these United States.
Because Ward was on the Sinclair Commission, it is thought Rohr and the district attorney would be immediately butting heads. Rohr likes the status quo because it keeps things simple for him. Will Rohr work with Ward?
The Ryan Family Begin to Execute Their Plan
Switching out number plates is a clear indication something is going down which requires speed, stealth and subterfuge. In this case, it’s an armoured car robbery. A Commonwealth armoured car is being protected individuals (Michael Malvesti, Thomas Kee and Patrick M. Walsh) completely unaware they are being targeted for a robbery by the Ryan family. Nothing unexpected happens to prevent them from getting what they want.
As well as making off the armoured car, the Ryan family kidnapped the driver and security detail assigned to protect whatever it was they were transporting. During a scuffle in the back of the vehicle, one of the guards is shot in the head. Consequently, the individual driving the vehicle temporarily losses control of the truck but eventually gets it back on the road.
Because the armoured car guards saw one of the robbers without his mask, it places the boss in a difficult situation. Frankie is not sure what he’s going to do. After removing his mask, and pausing for a moment, Frankie shoots the remaining two guards. The robbers dispose of the bodies in oil drums and roll them into the driver.
When Frankie finally returns home, we discover he is every bit the family man the men he shot were. His daughter, Kick Ryan (Blake Baumgartner), awoke when her father was not home. She is apparently scared because of his absence.
Rohr and Ward Meet
Their first meeting did not go well. Ward saw through Rohr like the pain of glass he is. Rohr thinks he can talk to Ward like he is some green fresh out of law school type attorney. That does not fly with Ward. The district attorney knows what he’s doing.
After a brief conversation between Rey and Rohr, Rey goes to Ward wanting him to drop the case against Roach. Ward can see what Rey is doing. Neither Rey nor Rohr has any respect for Ward. They only see him as an affirmative action hire. Just because Ward is African American, it does not automatically make him an affirmative action hire.
Because of Rohr’s interest in seeing Roach let off the hock, Ward investigates the FBI agent. He wants to know why Rohr would put himself out for an informant.
Rohr Enjoying Himself with a …
Sexual content is common in Showtime productions. Consequently, no one should be surprised to see Rohr or any of the other principal characters engaging in such behaviour. It reflects life as it is rather than how certain people believe in should be. If conservatives had their way, much of reality would not have a reflective presence on television. Rohr is a philanderer. He says he cares about his wife but that does not stop him from seeking sex elsewhere.
When Rohr returns home, he discovers his daughter crouched over the toilet throwing up. Rohr tells her she is fortunate that it was not her mother that discovered her in such a state.
Minogue has No Respect for Rohr
Ward goes to speak with Minogue about the case. Even though it is evident Minogue does not respect Ward, he has even less respect for the FBI agent. Minogue somehow has a sense of decency. “That c***s**k*r offends Minogue.
Rohr tries and succeeds in using Minogue’s brother against the police detective to get him to tank the Roach case. Ward is surprised to find the judge telling him he should have let Roach walk when he discovered he was an informant for an FBI agent.
Ward goes after the Armoured Car Case
Ward is interested in pursuing the armoured car case. Even though it is possibly the last thing he wants to do, Ward speaks with Rohr. Ward tells Rohr about the armoured car case. The guards, according to Ward, are still missing. He does not realise they are dead. The guards are rotting in oil drums at the bottom of the Charles River.
Rohr, an alumnus of DC Law School, is a law school graduate. He graduated in 1968. This surprised Ward but there must have been something about the FBI agent that made the bureau want him on the team. The two men have found common ground. It looks like they will be able to work together.
The Tail End of the Episode
At the end of the episode, we see the Ryan family going after a second armoured car. Even though the previous job ended with Frankie killing the guards, it seems they have grown a liking for the more violent kinds of robbery.
In the final seconds of the episode, we discover Rohr has an informant within the Ryan family’s midst.
Typically, when one thinks of period drama, what immediately springs to mind is such British productions as Upstairs, Downstairs; Brideshead Revisited and Downton Abbey. These productions revolve more around the British aristocracy than they do the average Britons of the period. If you are looking for an accurate depiction of middle and working-class British life, one would be better served by watching North & South and or Call the Midwife. Despite the numerous British productions fitting the period drama genre, these United States is every bit as much capable of producing quality period productions as that seen by either the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and or Sky.
What constitutes period-drama? Contemporary drama is set in the present day. City on a Hill is set in the late twentieth century. It’s Boston in the late 1990s. Consequently, the Showtime series can be considered a period production. Having been born in the early 1970s, and living through both the eighties, nineties, the noughties (British term) and the twenty-tens, I can honestly say a 1990s set drama being considered period makes me feel old.