The Sneaky Greatness of Showtime’s City On A Hill

TV Features City on a Hill
The Sneaky Greatness of Showtime’s City On A Hill

Through five episodes of City on a Hill, I kept a silent vigil for some flicker of redemption in the character of FBI agent Jackie Rohr, played by Kevin Bacon with a measure of wolfish vitality and a measure of dread as he confronts his impending, inevitable oldness. Rohr represents the rapid, erratic heartbeat of the Showtime miniseries; thin and leering, he prowls the streets of early ‘90s Boston with the kind of heedless aggression born of either total confidence or total desperation. I watched as he bullied and abused colleagues, callously moved prosecutors and informants around like pawns, and behaved like an absolute prick, repeatedly, toward his innocent wife. I waited patiently, because I have been conditioned by even the best prestige dramas to expect some kind of moral compensation (or at least penitence) from the most compromised characters.

My patience was not rewarded, and I gave up at some point in the fifth episode, when Rohr hopped in the back of an ambulance to gleefully mock a dying colleague.

In this week’s TV power rankings, I noted the contrast between Rohr and The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty, another flawed officer of the law. Unlike McNulty, who maintains a stubborn inner goodness even as his nature drives him to disappoint and sometimes betray his lovers and colleagues, Rohr is repellent from the beginning, and the writers make no effort—at least halfway through this 10 episode miniseries—to give us something to like. He’s no McNulty, and he’s also no Walter White, driven inexorably to greater feats of evil by some original misfortune. He just is, and when someone asks him why he gets in so deep—what motivates him?—he alludes to a line from Macbeth:

I am in blood/Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

In other words, this is his life, period, and it would take just as much effort to turn back. If his ethical philosophy runs any deeper—Rohr is about as dirty as a cop can be while still landing, somewhat vaguely, on the side of justice—we certainly don’t learn about it.

But it doesn’t take long to realize, even on a gut level, that Rohr is essential to his time and place. It’s partly Bacon’s magnetism, partly the crackling dialogue, and partly the razor-sharp attention to plot, but whatever the brew, you won’t be able to look away from the elemental ugliness of the whole spectacle. Here we have a character who is a metaphor for the show itself: sometimes inscrutable, always unapologetic, and ultimately fascinating.

City o
n A Hill
is a show with room for just three stars, and the second of those is Aldis Hodge. He plays DeCourcy Ward, an imposing, stone-cut, suspender-wearing D.A. who, despite his idealism, is one of the few people in Boston who can impress Rohr. There’s a staggering moment at the end of the pilot where, in a window seat at a bar, while snowflakes fall outside, Ward delivers a monologue about his father, a man who marched with King, who suffered beatings at the hands of racists like Bull O’Connor, and who came home from those escapades and visited that refracted violence on his children. Once, Ward says, the old man “caught him with a thumb,” and with a twist of his own fingers, he removes his glass eye and sets it on the table. Rohr’s surprised smirk, his nod of acknowledgment, speaks volumes—here is a man loathe to credit anyone outside himself, but Ward got his attention.

And yet, in a satisfying twist, we learn in the next episode that it was all bullshit—Ward lost his eye to cancer, and his father never marched with King or beat him. The revelation is totally unexpected, and adds immediate depth to Ward’s mission of breaking down the bureaucratic and criminal corruption rampant in Boston. (Or, as he puts it, “rip out the fucked-up machinery in this bullshit city.”) He’s no naif, and whether he’s cajoling, intimidating, or simply restraining himself in the face of abuse from pastors, colleagues, or Rohr himself, he hums with a kind of restorative energy. If Rohr is the hollowed-out remnant of a promise, Ward is the second wind that restores it to life. As partners, they’re perfect.

The third star of this show is the plot. I won’t say the writing, necessarily, because there are glaring weaknesses here, and those weaknesses include just about every female character (as Amy Amatangelo noted at Paste). Someone seems to have reminded the creators late in the game that they needed women in the script, and so they threw together a patchwork of cliches, including—stop me if you’ve heard this before—the unfaithful and inattentive main character’s wife, who lacks purpose and seeks spiritual and material answers from a priest. But don’t mistake me: Rohr’s wife, Jenny, is no Carmela Soprano; rather, a thin knock-off meant to fill some unspoken but compulsory quota. For a show that avoids cliches like the plague in the scenes that matter, minor characters and subplots like these are rife with them. Roughly 95% of arguments between a couple, for instance, end with the woman approaching the man, putting on a sultry look, and ending the scene with a mini-seduction. It’s like the writer got stuck in a dialogue that he couldn’t escape from, paused in thought, and said, “well, what if they screw again?”

For me, these missteps are easy to ignore, but I’ve heard that there’s a gender divide in how this show is perceived, and that might explain it—maybe I’m more willing to wade through the paper-thin deviations and wait for the good parts than someone who is actively witnessing token attempts to represent their own gender. This is a criticism that also dogged True Detective’s first season, but where I always found that critique a little bit reactionary and unfair, here it’s entirely legitimate.

But those good parts? They’re very, very good. There is a ghost that haunts the plot of this show, and that ghost is the (real-life) muckracking journalist Lincoln Steffens, who wrote a book in 1904 called The Shame of the Cities about urban corruption. His name is first referenced in the pilot, when a judge confronts Ward for his stubborn decision not to cut a confidential informant loose from a drug charge. “You know what, counselor?” the judge lectures, “Lincoln Steffens once said, ‘Jesus replied that he could only save sinners, not the righteous.’ Think on that.” Later, Rohr also throws Steffens in Ward’s face: “I mean, you ever heard of Lincoln Steffens? Good men don’t understand.”

Interestingly, I found an earlier script that expands the line: “You know, Steffens once had this line about how he could clean any city with 50 so-called “bad” men. That ‘good men don’t understand.’”

The judge and Rohr both assume that Ward is too upright, too clean to deal with the realities of the city, which makes it so powerful when he places the glass eye on the table and says to Rohr, “you’re right. Only the bad understand.”

Steffens is mentioned in three of the first four episodes, but blink and you could miss him. Which is a good description of the plot, actually—more than any crime show in recent memory, City on a Hill assumes a good deal of intelligence on the part of its audience. It makes The Wire look like a paint-by-numbers operation in that regard, and the closest comparison I could dredge up is Thomas Alfredson’s 2011 film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which took me two viewings before I could appreciate its subtle brilliance (and that’s as a huge John LeCarre fan who had read the book). City is similar in its approach, and even the way they abridged the Steffens quote above between the original script and the pilot hints at the approach. They want the viewer to work, a little, to keep pace with the story.

And the story is a knockout. To invoke Wire criticism yet again, it gets to the heart of a corrupt ecosystem in true Dickensian fashion, from city hall to the courts to the papers to the criminals operating on the seamy streets. It’s a gorgeous interwoven narrative of all-encompassing vice giving way to the so-called “Boston Miracle,” with truly grim bits of cinematography and a brisk pace that will demand you run alongside it, nearly breathless. Despite the shortcomings, this is a show that rewards patience, even if that demand might doom it to the arcane outer edges of TV discourse. But if you like uncompromising attention to detail and writing that displays total mastery of a specific zeitgeist, with uncommon humor, two imperative characters, and a real, holistic philosophy on human nature, City on a Hill is the show where American ideals meet the grinding wheel of American reality.

City on a Hill airs Sunday nights on Showtime.

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