City on a Hill is back for Season 2
Kevin Bacon has been so ubiquitous that its all too easy to forget what a great actor he can truly be. Whether in prestige films Apollo 13 or A Few Good Men, sly comedies like Crazy, Stupid, Love or big Oscar winners like Mystic River, he always gives quiet understated performances. As he’s gotten older, like so many other great actors, he’s migrated to TV, hunting serial killers in The Following or the twisted subject of devotion in the too-short-lived Amazon series I Love Dick. And now, in his sixties, he’s finally found one of his greatest roles in the exceptional City on a Hill.
Jackie Rohr, the Boston FBI agent at the center of the series, has managed to maintain his career by manipulation and charm. But as the second begins, he’s beginning to run out of moves and he knows it. He dumps the body of an ADA who ODs while in his car in an old hospital. (TV fans will recognize it as St. Eligus.) The head of Justice doesn’t want him there any more, and the old cops and agents who listened to him are finding his stories annoying more than charming. (In a funny joke, he’s being referred to as ‘I Am Woman’ by agents now. If you know the chorus, you know why that would stick in Jackie’s craw.) And the series which had a little sympathy for his last season, has none to spare for him now. He’s just a monster who keeps moving rather than face himself. Even his daughter, a junkie last year, knows as much.
DeCourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge) tried to outmaneuver Jackie last season and paid the price. Now his ambitions have shifted from simply making a place for himself to trying to destroy Jackie. A lot of the brilliance in the series comes when these two adversaries are in the same room. Hodge and Bacon spark with every exchange between them as Jackie tries his best to utterly destroy his enemy and frankly anyone else who gets in way. But Ward has learned his lesson and is more than willing to get down in the muck.
There’s also the central crime going on at the center of Season 2. There’s a drug war going on between two black gangs which led to a girl named Grace getting shot by a stray bullet. The two brothers who lead the gang are the nephews of a community organizer in Boston who tries to make things better for her world, not knowing her nephews are doing their part to make it worse. Nor has the series forgotten last season’s arc: Cathy Ryan, the wife of the bank robber criminal has been left destitute by her husband’s imprisonment. In an effort to survive, she makes a deal with the devil — her brother-in-law Jimmy, who sold out her entire family as an FBI informant and is still walking around free, making drug deals to survive with this gang. It’s only a matter of time, particularly since Jackie still has a hold over Jimmy, that all these worlds will collide.
City on a Hill improved immensely over the first season, and one of the ways it has gotten much better as we go into Season 2 is the increased role of the women. Amanda Clayton is charismatic as ever as the battered down Cathy, who will do anything to survive except take help from her friends. Siobhan, DeCourcy’s wife (Lauren E. Banks) was mostly a figure of support in Season 1. Now, she branches out on her own, trying for the political ambitions her husband squandered, trying to get a baby that she may not be able to have, and openly clashing with him. But by far the most outstanding performance comes from Jill Hennessy as Jenny, Jackie’s embattled wife. Jenny had all the marks of a cliché when we first met her; now she’s become, in many ways, the most brilliant of all the characters on this series. Jenny has been battered down by every aspect of her life, and though she made enormous progress in the Season 1 finale, all her problems are still there; a horrible mother who has no interest in taking responsibility for any actions, no real future for her life at this point, and Jackie, a husband who won’t touch his wife, and would rather make fun of her for playing with herself rather than do anything to satisfy her urges. This is Hennessy’s best work in decades.
City on a Hill had all the markings of a great series when it premiered: in addition to its sterling cast, it’s a production of Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, who gave us two of the greatest series of all time: Homicide and Oz. It features many of the writers and directors from both of those series, but struggled early on to find its true voice. Now, it has nearly realized its potential, showing great acting and dealing with some of the harder issues that it only touched on in early in its run. It’s not quite at the level of The Wire or even Homicide yet, but it’s close, and given the absence of so many major series this year; I think it’s a good contender for a lot of Emmy nominations.
My score: 4.5 stars.