The first names that appear in the credits sequence of “City on a Hill” belong to executive producers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, which makes almost too much sense, given where the new Showtime series takes place. Set in 1990s Boston, and originating from an idea Affleck pitched creator Chuck MacLean, the show explores rampant corruption and casual racism plaguing the city’s law enforcement.
MacLean shares the two A-listers’ Boston cred, having grown up in the suburb of Quincy, Mass., before attending Emerson College and briefly writing for local newspapers. His cops-and-robbers drama, which centers on an interracial partnership between a racist FBI agent (Kevin Bacon) and a new-in-town assistant district attorney (Aldis Hodge), aspires to accomplish something in the vein of David Simon’s HBO series “The Wire,” as several critics have pointed out. MacLean’s show features considerably more Catholic guilt.
The result is a show that, however authentic, so intensely embraces Boston film and television tropes that its characters might as well hop on the T to Braintree with cups of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in hand. Here’s a closer look at how that played out in the first episode, which aired Sunday night.
The theme song
It’s a quick-paced, tense version of … a river-dancing tune? Solid start.
Oh, the accents. As the unscrupulous FBI agent Jackie Rohr, Bacon speaks like his mouth is full of gravel. It’s a miracle none of the rocks fall out when he stretches his A’s, as South Boston natives do. “You fohgettin’ what state yuh livin’ in, pal?” he says at one point. “This is Massachoosetts!”
The best accents in “City on a Hill” are arguably showcased by the Ryan family — the morally ambiguous Frankie (Jonathan Tucker, who’s also from Boston) and his younger brother, Jimmy (Mark O’Brien). Frankie is the brains behind the armored car robbery that kicks off the show, and Jimmy, who has a drug problem, tries to persuade his older brother to let him in on the next heist: “Brotha, come on,” Jimmy pleads. In return, Frankie orders Jimmy — several times — to “get in the cah!”
An honorable mention goes to two women at the beauty salon where Frankie’s wife, Cathy (Amanda Clayton), works. One of them asks, “Did you heah about the thing in Revere?” Her friend responds, “What, the dead ahhmed cah gahhds?” (Frankie was involved in the deaths of those car guards. Oops!)
Hockey reigns supreme among all ages, as is established by Frankie and Cathy’s young daughter running into the beauty salon with a bloody nose and announcing that it was “Johnny O’Malley with a hockey stick” who inflicted the wound. Even the episode’s title gets in on it. “The Night Flynn Sent the Cops on the Ice,” a story Rohr tells while smoking outside a funeral home, references a “bloody brawl” at a Boston Bruins-Montreal Canadiens game in the mid-1980s, when Raymond Flynn was mayor.
And then there’s football. When Decourcy Ward (Hodge), the disciplined attorney who arrives from Brooklyn to get things on track, asks someone why Rohr gets away with so much, Ward learns that Rohr is regarded as though he were “the FBI’s Doug Flutie.” Flutie is a football player who gained prominence after his historic “Hail Flutie” touchdown pass helped the Boston College Eagles beat the University of Miami Hurricanes during a 1984 game.
The geographical references
In an effort to persuade Frankie and his fellow armed, masked robbers not to kill him, a witness tells them that he’s from D Street, likely referring to the projects located in Southie: “All’s I’m saying is that I grew up with it!” he cries. “I’m not gonna rat anyone out.”
Several characters also name-drop Charlestown, the working-class, largely Irish neighborhood from which Ben Affleck’s 2010 crime thriller “The Town” got its name. (MacLean told Boston magazine that Affleck pitched him the idea of using his research for the film to help develop a show set in 1990s Boston.) While discussing the robbery, Rohr tells Ward that the perpetrators are most likely from Charlestown because “there’s more bank robbers in Charlestown than any other square mile in the English-speaking world.”
“But you can’t convict them,” he adds, “because they don’t talk.”
The crime bosses
It isn’t Boston in the ’90s if there isn’t at least one mention of Whitey Bulger, the onetime FBI informant who wound up on the bureau’s 10 most-wanted fugitives list. While the mobster doesn’t figure into the plot of “City on a Hill,” a BPD officer uses him as an example of how Southie’s “code of silence” kept organized crime going: “You know who Whitey Bulger is?” the officer asks Ward. “He’s the biggest … myth in the history of Boston. ‘Whitey keeps the drugs out of Southie,’ that’s because Whitey is the drugs in Southie. But you, me, we? Can’t touch 'em."
After Ward asks why even FBI agents like Rohr would lie to protect fellow Southie residents, the officer says it’s because Rohr is from “a time in this city when things were so [messed] up, if you went to Mass on Sunday, you were considered legitimate.”
Intrigued? Just wait for the second episode, titled “What They Saw in Southie High.”