Published on April 11th, 2021 | by Kim Kurtenbach


City on a Hill (2019)

KK reviews Showtime’s hard worn crime drama, set in 1990s Boston, and discovers that pahts aff it ah wicked good!

City on a Hill (2019) is just sitting there on Crave, the pale yellowing poster looking as though it promises echos of The Wire (2002). That’s a bold posture to simulate, as The Wire is pretty much an untouchable piece of television, but it manages better than one could imagine – at times. The ten episode season is an inverted bell curve, starting and ending strong, but there is lag in the middle that is filled with characters and plot lines that wonder and muse without necessarily leading to satisfactory conclusions. 

Add the efforts of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon who act as executive producers alongside Tom Fontana [Oz (1997)] and you get a good-looking show that will register with most viewers as somewhere from ‘pretty good’ to ‘utterly amazing’. The range of response I’m speaking of will depend on how much the specifically crafted mood of the series strikes your fancy. For example, you will either appreciate or reject the way that all the characters look tired. Not sleepy tired, but tired from a hard life. Work, booze, smokes. Bills that are paid by drawing names from a hat.

I didn’t want to start this review by gushing on about Kevin Bacon, but the more I thought about it I realized it’s impossible not to. Kevin is pretty much the best Bacon he’s ever been as FBI agent Jackie Rohr. He’s not a scrawny teen anymore, dancing his blue jeans off in a bible thumping town. He’s not a hot-headed ranch-hand working his blue jeans off to fight giant monster desert worms and he’s not a camp councillor getting his blue jeans splattered in murder/slasher blood. But watching Bacon in City on a Hill is different; it’s like actually visiting the Eiffel Tower. You know what the Eiffel Tower is, you’ve seen it a million times as a postcard, keychain or reference point. At first re-consideration, it seems pretty meh. Until (trust me) you’re standing underneath it. Or climbing the stairs, riding the lift or watching from the park below as it gets lit up like a 1,063 foot Christmas tree. Suddenly, there’s no denying the awesome spectacle of it’s magnificent presence. That’s Kevin Bacon in City on a Hill. Bacon is now an iconic tower of the Hollywood landscape, older, a little worn, and far more compelling than even his 80s rise to fame indicated he would become. His presence as Jacky Rohr is more like his turn in Sleepers (2003) or Mystic River (2003) than pretty much anything else he has done. He is mean, tragic, manipulative, painfully self-aware and unintentionally hilarious.

The rest of the cast in City on a Hill is deep. There are plenty of familiar faces to recognize and talent abound. Canadians Jill Hennessy (who plays Jacki’s wife) and Mark O’Brien (playing Jimmy Ryan) are standouts for their performances and especially the way they nail the Boston accent. Actors Lee Tergesen, Kathryn Erbe, Dean Winters, Scott William Winters and Seth Gilliam are all Oz (1997) alumni, while Sarah Shahi and Kevin Chapman bring their talents from Person of Interest (2013). This issue with having a cast this big is making the characters count. They have to do something in order to service the story, and that is where the bell curve starts to dip before climbing again. There are too many people doing too many things and the middle of the season suffers from a little dullness and confusion.

City on a Hill is the story of politics, police, corruption and crime in Boston during the 1990s. It almost looks authentically 90s except for the fact that thirty years ago televisions shows rarely addressed topics the way that they do today. Plenty of conversations and discussions will sound very 2020, even while someone talks on a cell phone the size of a Kleenex box. Topics of racism, sexual assault, trauma and the struggles of minority groups in the 90s now viewed through a 2020 lens sometimes works and sometimes falls short of better insight. When it works, interesting sub-stories develop. Consider the character of Rachael Benham [Sarah Shahi, Alias (2001), Chicago Fire (2012), Person of Interest (2013).] There is a contemplative thread that runs through the last half of the episodes examining perception of belonging. Rachael is repeatedly asked, “Where’r yew from?” It’s hard to belong anywhere when no matter where you go, people say, you don’t belong here. What everybody really wants to know, but is too afraid to ask outright (because it’s practically meaningless) what are you? The idea of a mixed-race person or an immigrant who is, for all intents and purposes, a product of the environment they moved to more so than the one they left, was a puzzling concept to the people of Charlestown in 1990. When it doesn’t work, we watch new characters enter, linger and leave. They provide musings on unexplored ideas, but not much else.

City on a Hill may be predictably flawed (no more no less) like most shows running the last ten years, but I love the mood of it. Boston is a great city full of characters who love sports and arguing and telling you what freedom means. The people are tough, have awesome accents and pronounce ‘car keys’ as ‘khakis’. So yeah, I like hanging out there. Ultimately, what you’re going to see in this show is struggle and mostly of the variety that involves morality and motivation. Good people contemplating the give-and-take of getting what they want. Bad people doing the same. I once heard Bruce Springsteen say that he considered adulthood to be the perpetual state of holding two conflicting notions in your head and not going crazy because of the one you do not favour. It’s a lot for anyone to wrestle with and the biggest prick in the show, Jackie Roar himself, annoyingly justifies “You’re just like everyone. You can’t seem to learn that you ain’t that good, and I ain’t that bad.”

City on a Hill Season 1 & 2 are now streaming on Crave.


About the Author

is a Beatlemaniac who is constantly bemoaning the state of rock music. He is rueful of low ceilings, and helpful to strangers in supermarkets where the shelves are too high.

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