A well-dressed woman and her daughter enter a grocery store looking for avocados in the rough Charlestown suburb of Boston in 1992. The clerk dismisses her politely, explaining there is little demand for the fruit in the neighborhood. He may not be aware of the encroaching gentrification that will soon reshape his working class, Irish enclave. She is certainly not aware he is moonlighting as an armed robber.
Showtime’s City on a Hill is set in a turbulent period for race relations in Boston’s recent history. Less than two decades after the attempt to desegregate the city’s schools met with violent and ugly protests, racist anger boiled over in October 1989 when Charles Stuart, a middle class, white businessman, claimed his pregnant wife was murdered by a black man in a robbery attempt. The Boston Police used this as a pretext to enter the predominantly black neighborhood of Roxbury and engage in a campaign of harassment and violence based on Stuart’s description of the assailant. In January 1990, Stuart committed suicide after his brother revealed him to be the true killer. A subsequent inquiry into corruption in the police department led to increased racial tensions and conflict between the city and law enforcement.
Kevin Bacon stars as Jackie Rohr, a corrupt, self-destructive FBI agent and former mob-buster who seems resigned to his failure to bring local criminals to justice. Inspired by the example of Robert Kennedy, Rohr graduated succumbs to both his and Boston’s excesses sometime after graduation from law school. He creates an unlikely alliance with Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge), an assistant district attorney who built his reputation investigating the Boston police after the Stuart incident. It is an alliance of necessity; Ward is loathed equally by criminals, law enforcement, and his own community who view him as an appeaser. A native New Yorker, he is also new to the level of corruption and its enabler culture of his adopted city. After initial friction with the bigoted Rohr the two men must investigate the disappearance of an armored car along with three security guards.
With Barry Levinson, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck among the executive producers, City on a Hill manages both its nostalgia and its Boston accents well. Trolling through formerly homogeneous Irish neighborhoods with Ward and Rohr in the 1990s ago feels like a long-lost House of Pain video – there is a sense of propriety and a code of honor that keeps the crime-infested neighborhood intact.
Bacon’s energy drives the series. Despite a period moustache and a few wrinkles, he has all the energy of Ren McCormack from Footloose, except that his vices are stronger than merely an urge to dance. And he is an unrepentant bigot who takes pleasure in calling his partner “Clarence Thomas.”
Through the lens of 2019, Rohr’s antiquated view of the world is not shocking; his colleagues’ measured non-verbal responses to his comments suggest how inappropriate they were even in the early ’90s. Indeed, his racist and political microaggressions line up well with the views of many Trump supporters and Fox News pundits today; and in the wake of numerous documented cases of racial profiling by police over the past decade, the details of the Stuart case are not shocking.
All of this makes City on a Hill as much a critique of the present as much as a period piece of Boston in the 1990s. Rohr’s disdain for Ward’s assistant, Rachel Benham (Sarah Shali) is utterly consistent with the current alt-right’s fear of the increasing power of women. He embodies the atavistic drives of contemporary masculinity, propositioning women and tossing around epithets before it became unfashionable to do so. The subtle reference to gentrification in episode two is a reminder that Boston was one of the last cities in the east to dismantle established, segregated neighborhoods. With this came an abundance of better food choices but a scarcity of affordable housing in American cities.
City on a Hill deserves credit for avoiding the white savior trope. Although he recognizes the necessity of an ally, however imperfect, Ward neither trusts nor defers to Rohr. He knows their uneasy alliance will eventually advance his career and is willing to put up with his indulgences and slurs. Rohr is the metaphor for a way of life in Boston that will soon collapse under the weight of its own criminal excess. The South Boston of the armed robbers became a multicultural enclave of trendy restaurants and cafes and little of the working-class Irish Catholic presence remains. Ward and his wife, a lawyer, played by Lauren E. Banks, represent members of the Black community who pushed for police reform, while negotiating the delicate balance between serving as role models and avoiding collaboration with perceived antagonists.
The show will appeal to viewers for different reasons. Crime dramas continue to reassure us that the marginalization of the middle and working class is a fair trade-off for living an honest life. Many viewers wmightill be selectively nostalgic for the Boston and 1990s of for their youth; others will embrace Kevin Bacon’s swagger, unrestrained by third-wave feminism and censorship. I view City on a Hill as a reminder of how far urban societies in America have come, but how little in the past three decades has changed.