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'City on a Hill,' June 16, Showtime


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NEW YORK (CNS) -- Veteran show runner Tom Fontana ("Homicide: Life on the Street"), A-list executive producers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and a strong performance by lead Kevin Bacon fail to redeem Showtime's limited-series drama "City on a Hill."

Dismal, banal and tedious, the 10-episode show debuts Sunday, June 16, 9-10 p.m. EDT. It will air in that timeslot throughout its run.

Chuck MacLean created the series, which is set in Boston in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the real-life, nationally famous Chuck Stuart murder case. In 1989, Stuart asserted that a black male had killed his pregnant wife, Carol, and injured him.

His brother Matthew's testimony, however, definitively implicated Stuart in the murder. Stuart committed suicide, but the review of his case revealed the coercion, racism and corruption infecting the Boston police department.

This atmosphere and context inform the program's action. Having brought an infamous mob syndicate to justice a decade earlier, veteran FBI agent Jackie Rohr (Bacon) pretty much has the run of the town, especially where his corrupt administration of justice is concerned.

Bacon plays the lawman -- who smokes and drinks too much, abuses drugs and habitually patronizes prostitutes -- with an oddly appealing brio and energy.

Early in the series, Jackie visits the Suffolk County courthouse to protect an informant, Clay Roach (Rory Culkin), who's been accused of shooting a cop. Jackie intends to teach a new African American assistant district attorney, Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge), the dubious lesson that sometimes you have to look away in the long-term interests of Boston's unique brand of justice.

But the former U.S. attorney initially resists a partnership with Jackie. Having worked on a commission that reprimanded Boston's police department, Decourcy has recently relocated from Brooklyn, determined to continue exposing corruption.

As the men's relationship develops, however, they realize each could be useful to the other. They form an alliance to bring down a gang of armored car robbers from nearby Charlestown.

The head of the group, Frankie Ryan (Jonathan Tucker), and his wife, Cathy (Amanda Clayton), maintain a veneer of normality and respectability in their working-class community. To mask their criminal enterprise, Frankie works in the local grocery store's produce department while Cathy manages the neighborhood salon.

Frankie's unstable and substance-dependent younger brother, Jimmy (Mark O'Brien), upsets the family's ostensibly tranquil domestic life and threatens the illegal operation's future.

As it tracks the big-picture issues of crime, racism and corruption, "City on a Hill" also charts the conflicts and tension affecting the Rohr, Ward and Ryan families.

Viewers who tune in to Showtime shouldn't anticipate seeing a program reminiscent of a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" production. The script deploys profane and vulgar language as well as racist and homophobic slurs abundantly and lazily -- which gets to feel excessive, even by the standards of cable's often gritty fare.

The violence depicted on the show, moreover, is graphic and occasionally gratuitous. The sexual content is also strong and includes discussions of sexually transmitted diseases and feminine hygiene issues. Illicit drug use is another consistent theme. Thus even adult viewers should evaluate the series' problematic elements carefully before watching -- or they may wind up feeling under assault.

Beyond its questionable taste, "City on a Hill" suffers from its focus on characters' unseemly intimate concerns and the petty, mean-spirited interactions between family members. These aspects of the story aren't interesting, and they don't advance the plot.

Unfortunately, these ugly moments will linger in viewers' minds, overwhelming the few tender, affectionate, genuine interludes, such as the nice scenes between Frankie and his daughter, the eminently likable Kick (Blake Baumgartner).

By emphasizing the peripheral, "City on a Hill" loses sight of its core issues. As a result, the important topics that presumably inspired the series -- and that make it sound so good in theory -- get lost in the sordid shuffle.

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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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