For a show that is produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, showrun by the great Tom Fontana (“Oz”), and stars Kevin Bacon, it often feels like Showtime’s “City on a Hill” exists in a vacuum. Can a TV show actually be considered ‘prestige’ if few watch it, there’s almost no discourse around it, and even Showtime forgets that it exists? It probably comes as a surprise, then, that the show is entering its third season. Less of a surprise is that it’s doing so with precisely zero fanfare despite being a fascinating and complex exploration of city politics and the ramifications of the so-called ‘Boston Miracle’ that targeted police reform and curbed youth gun violence in the ’90s.
Having evolved away from the cops vs. bank robbers narrative that fueled the first season — and often felt engaging but also like discarded script pages of Affleck’s own “The Town” — “City on a Hill” has slowly morphed throughout two seasons into an interesting critique of the incremental methods of social reform. This change is, perhaps, due to Fontana’s engagement, having taken over from creator Chuck MacLean, who was sidelined after misconduct allegations during the second season. Despite Fontana’s name never appearing on a script, his fingerprints are all over the show and its preoccupation with the notion of ethical policing and the moral obligations of public works projects.
Continuing to foreground the caustic relationship between now former FBI agent Jackie Rohr (Bacon) and Assistant District Attorney DeCourcey Ward (Aldis Hodge), the third season picks up the strands of season two’s public housing narrative. It continues to push further into the political machinations and ramifications of rapid upheaval. Jackie finds himself adrift this season, working security for the wealthy Dryden family (Corbin Bernsen and Joanne Kelly), who harbor some nefarious secrets. DeCourcey continues to muscle his way through the DA’s office, contending with Guy Dan’s (John Dorman) political campaign. Meanwhile, Decourcey’s wife Siobhan (Lauren E. Banks) takes a job at the ACLU and investigates working conditions at the Big Dig, and Jenny Rohr (Jill Hennessy) still obsesses about Jackie’s infidelity while continuing to string along Father Doyle (Mark Ryder).
While “City on a Hill” has an almost overwhelming amount of characters at this point — we haven’t even gotten to Matthew Del Negro’s sad cop Chris — previous seasons have done well at showing the overlap of their individual cases, effectively bringing together narratives at the end of each season. This season, mainly, works well at exploring the financial inequality that plagues the city, juxtaposing the Big Dig workers with the Dryden family’s cloistered existence.
Yet, the show still hasn’t figured out a way of making Rohr and Ward’s family lives interesting. Hennessy’s Jackie gets the worst of this, essentially replaying her season two storyline with Father Doyle, while Siobhan’s ACLU work is infinitely more compelling than the tragic backstory that she is saddled with halfway through the season. Even Jackie’s daughter Benedetta (Lucia Ryan) is stuck with an addiction storyline that feels repetitive and from a lesser show.
If the interpersonal storylines occasionally dip into soapiness, by the end of the six episodes screened (out of eight), the show feels like it’s moving towards a central thesis, bringing Ward and Rohr back together to investigate Dryden. We’ll see how these narratives play out, and if “City on a Hill” can stick its landing. But, if the previous seasons are any indication, “City on a Hill” will be just fine. I just wonder if anyone will be watching. [B]