DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. This Sunday, Showtime premieres a new drama series called "City On A Hill," starring Kevin Bacon. It's set in Boston in the early 1990s and centers on a series of armored car robberies, a high-profile case that exposes all the city's problems around politics, race and police corruption. Our TV critic David Bianculli is interested in the story, but also in what he says is the show's very impressive roster, onscreen and off. Here's his review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "City On A Hill" is a period cop series about trying to change the system from within and encountering resistance - sometimes deadly resistance - everywhere you turn. It's a bit like "Serpico," set in Boston instead of New York and in the '90s instead of the '70s, with Kevin Bacon in the Al Pacino role.
But there are two major differences. One is that "City On A Hill," though it's set against and mentions actual events and police scandals of the time, is a fictional story with fictional characters. And the other major difference reflects the TV complexity of our time and of what we expect or accept out of an ambitious TV drama these days.
"City On A Hill" is more like David Simon's "The Wire," examining motives and actions from every important angle on all sides. And its protagonist, Kevin Bacon's FBI investigator Jackie Rohr, is less like a morally rigid Frank Serpico than one of the corrupt lawmen Serpico went undercover to expose. It's a meaty role, and Bacon inhabits the character instantly and completely.
The moral crusader in "City On A Hill," at least at first, is Decourcy Ward, played by Aldis Hodge. He's an assistant district attorney, newly arrived from Brooklyn, who shows up with a personal mission to clean up the entire criminal justice system of Boston. And one of the first people he runs up against is Jackie Rohr, who introduces himself to the new assistant DA in the courtroom and asks a favor regarding the case that's just about to begin. As first impressions go, this one doesn't go well, and the civil tone of their conversation goes downhill fast.
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ALDIS HODGE: (As Decourcy Ward) Decourcy Ward.
KEVIN BACON: (As Jackie Rohr) Jackie Rohr, FBI. You mind if I call you D?
HODGE: (As Decourcy Ward) No. I have an arraignment.
BACON: (As Jackie Rohr) Arraignment's what I want to talk to you about. You've got a kid, Roach, on your docket. He's an informant of mine. He's working a decent case.
HODGE: (As Decourcy Ward) He also shot a cop.
BACON: (As Jackie Rohr) Well, he allegedly shot a cop.
HODGE: (As Decourcy Ward) You want me to let him off. Why me?
BACON: (As Jackie Rohr) Call it a professional favor.
HODGE: (As Decourcy Ward) No, but why me specifically?
BACON: (As Jackie Rohr) It's your case, isn't it? Is there a misunderstanding here?
HODGE: (As Decourcy Ward) No, no. See, I understand perfectly. You walk in there and you think, oh, the new guy's stupid enough to eat your [expletive].
BACON: (As Jackie Rohr) What are you, some kind of [expletive]?
HODGE: (As Decourcy Ward) I spent five years with the U.S. attorney, watching feds cut deals with pieces of [expletive] like this. Take it to Guy Dan (ph). See what he says.
BACON: (As Jackie Rohr) Oh, well, excuse me, Clarence Thomas. I'm sorry I gave you the benefit of the doubt. I figured that you weren't Guy Dan's Uncle Tom, but clearly, I was mistaken. Don't worry. Next time, I won't ask.
BIANCULLI: Once a series of armored car robberies grabs the headlines, the DA and the FBI agent become unlikely allies. For reasons as much personal and calculated as noble, they team up not only to investigate and prosecute the case, but to root out injustice in the precincts and courtrooms along the way. Bacon's Jackie Rohr becomes a very unlikely, very flawed hero here, a spiritual successor to Andy Sipowicz on "NYPD Blue" or almost any of the cops on "Homicide: Life On The Street."
The third main player here is Jonathan Tucker, who portrays Frankie Ryan, the head of the gang of armored car robbers. We see events unfold from his point of view, as well as from the FBI agent and the district attorney.
It's structured as a usual, familiar, male-dominated cop drama, but what's unusual about "City On A Hill" is that the women in their lives - wives, girlfriends, mothers, colleagues - figure so prominently. This makes room for some very strong scenes from some dynamic actresses, including, in the first three episodes alone, Jill Hennessy, Lauren E. Banks and Sarah Shahi. While the robbers are stealing sacks of money, these actresses are stealing scenes, one after another.
That's what's happening onscreen in "City On A Hill," but behind the scenes is just as dynamic a lineup. The executive producers - there are a lot of them - include Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Affleck gave the series idea to Boston screenwriter Chuck MacLean, who gets credit as creator and wrote the first episode. Other executive producers include Michael Cuesta from "Homeland," who directs the opener, Jennifer Todd from "Memento" and Barry Levinson, whose production partner Tom Fontana is the showrunner of "City On A Hill."
And that's where the specialness of this 12-part series really shines through. Just as the main characters in "City On A Hill" fight against the status quo of corruption, Tom Fontana, as a writer and producer, has fought just as diligently against the bland status quo of television. He did some of the most groundbreaking writing on NBC's "St. Elsewhere," then went on to "Homicide: Life On The Street," where he and Levinson based their show on a book by a then-unknown crime reporter named David Simon, who later created "The Wire."
Fontana brought quality drama to HBO by creating the pioneering prison series "Oz," then was one of the first TV creators to produce a series for Netflix with "Borgia." Network TV, cable, streaming - Fontana has left quality footprints wherever he goes into battle. And now he's at Showtime, with Kevin Bacon heading the charge. With "City On A Hill," expect complexity, expect the unexpected and expect excellence. You won't be disappointed.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey.
On Monday's show, the unique medical needs of older adults. Terry talks with geriatrician Louise Aronson, author of the new book "Elderhood," about what it means to live longer and to be on more medications. Aronson describes helping elders in her own family and flaws in the current health care system. I hope you'll join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAY CHARLES' "HORNFUL SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.