Many major American cities have stories of how they’ve transformed themselves or parts of themselves — or at least attempted transformations — from periods of economic downturn, crime and corruption into better approximations of the mythical, idyllic “city on a hill” that these metropolises may aspire to be.
How such cities embarked upon these changes varied, and sometimes raised questions when it came to subjects like law enforcement tactics and gentrification. In the case of Boston, a change began in 1996 with the implementation of Operation Ceasefire (informally known as the Boston Miracle). The program was aimed at policing and curtailing group-related gun violence as part of a larger-scale problem. It ultimately helped reduce youth homicide, and variations of the approach have evolved into similar programs across the country over the years.
Showtime’s compelling new 10-episode drama, City on a Hill (Sundays at 9pm ET/PT beginning June 16), offers a riveting fictional account of how the Boston Miracle began to transpire. The series takes place in 1992, a time when criminals in the city were emboldened by the corruption and racism that was the norm among law enforcement. (Befitting the time period and location, brace yourself to regularly hear racial epithets casually uttered by some characters.)
Watch the entire first episode for free:
Assistant District Attorney Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge, Underground), recently arrived from Brooklyn, finds his idealism immediately tested by the city’s circumstances. But when a family of armored car robbers from the Charlestown neighborhood, led by Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker), embark on a crime wave, Ward forms an unlikely alliance with corrupt yet venerated FBI veteran Jackie Rohr (an incredible, Emmy-worthy Kevin Bacon) to take them on. As the case grows, it involves — and ultimately subverts — the entire criminal justice system of Boston.
“From the first time I read the pilot, Jackie’s voice was something that I heard,” Bacon shares. “His manner of speaking, the way that [writer] Chuck MacLean constructs dialogue in this world of ’90s, sort of cops and robbers, had a kind of gritty vibe to me that was reminiscent of the movies that I loved in the ’70s, from [Martin] Scorsese and Sidney Lumet. And I felt like there wasn’t much on television that was really in this pocket … nothing that quite felt like this.
“I don’t really feel like I’ve been Jackie before, not quite in this kind of way,” Bacon added. “[In] The Following, a lot of what that was about was a very internalized kind of character who said very, very little and had a lot of secrets. Jackie can’t shut up. I start talking from the beginning, and I keep talking all the way to the end.
“I look at these scripts, and we highlight them in yellow, and I go, ‘That’s too much yellow. That’s too much yellow for a 60‑year‑old guy to learn,’ and yet that’s one of the things that I love about it, because it’s this kind of verbosity that he has, which is not something that — at least in recent times — I’ve really been exploring.”
Along with Bacon and the rest of its terrific cast, City on a Hill boasts impressive behind-the-scenes creative talent consisting of producers and writers who are from Boston or Baltimore (a city that has had similar issues) and/or have dealt with similar subjects in other projects.
— Kevin Bacon (@kevinbacon) June 13, 2019
Executive producers include famed sons of Boston Ben Affleck and Matt Damon; Quincy, Mass., writer Chuck MacLean (the upcoming Boston Strangler movie), who also wrote the pilot episode; Emmy winner Tom Fontana (Homicide: Life on the Street), who is also the showrunner and one of the series’ writers; Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson; and Oscar-nominated director James Mangold (Logan).
Hodge’s character serves as the viewers’ entry into this world of early ’90s Boston. And while Ward is initially taken aback by what he experiences both professionally and personally (people casually and openly calling the African-American attorney “boy,” for example), he stands his ground and does not let it faze him.
While Hodge did not meet with any of the participants of the real Boston Miracle, he told us he was able to talk with a couple of the DAs who worked the Boston scene at the time.
“They gave me their personal experience from having to do that job,” Hodge said. “Broke down the mentality, which I was primarily interested in. I’ll question, ‘How do you do your job, knowing that maybe you put somebody in jail for more time than was fair?’ And they told me sometimes you just kind of chip away at those moments to get to the bigger moments. Sometimes you got to give up a couple of those just to get the big win at the end of your fight.”
That isn’t always easy for Ward to wrap his head around.
“My character still believes in a certain idea of justice,” Hodge continued. “People say the system is broken. It’s not broken at all; it was made this way. It was literally engineered this way. If you acknowledge that truth, then you realize you have to break the system in order to gain some real ground on true ideals of justice. Because, think about any time equality is brought up — rights for women, rights for black people, gay rights — the law has to be broken. Doesn’t make sense, but it’s the truth.”