But he hasn’t wrestled his ideas and all the points he wants to make about power, race, religion, government and family into a dramatic vehicle that balances the big picture with the procedural hook and provides consistent entertainment value along with the point-making. That’s Simon’s specialty, achieved (to varying degrees of success) with the help of the crack crime writers he brings onboard his projects. MacLean, who wrote the first two episodes, doesn’t have the same level of experience — his Showtime bio lists just two in-development films, one with Casey Affleck, Ben’s brother — and so far the layers and complications of his story tend to keep you at a distance (and confuse you) rather than draw you in.
Chief among those elements is the odd-couple pairing of Bacon’s F.B.I. agent, Jackie Rohr, and Hodge’s ambitious assistant district attorney, Decourcy Ward, who’s fighting a lonely battle as a black prosecutor getting scant cooperation from the Boston police. Seeing an angle, Rohr co-opts Ward into a scheme to use a grand jury to pry testimony out of the famously closemouthed robbery crews of Charlestown.
On the other side of the story, Jonathan Tucker and an excellent Mark O’Brien (the hacker Tom Rendon in “Halt and Catch Fire”) play brothers who are members of a crew of armored-car thieves. And around everyone are clouds of skillfully played family and colleagues: Jill Hennessy as Rohr’s wife (long-suffering and at-home), Lauren E. Banks as Ward’s wife (equally career-minded but occasionally defensive) and Amanda Clayton as the crew leader’s wife (deadly serious); Dean Winters and Gloria Reuben, and Remar and Moriarty, as sets of parents; Sarah Shahi as Ward’s investigator. The voluminous cast is beyond cataloging, but just one more: the undersung Kevin Chapman (“Person of Interest”) as a cop reluctantly helping out Ward and Rohr.
They’re all good, and individual scenes between Bacon and Hodge or Hodge and Chapman or Bacon and O’Brien can be sharp and funny. But they’re all struggling with characters who feel a little too off-the-shelf — while MacLean’s dialogue has flavor, his people lean toward cliché (the carping mother-in-law, the crook’s wife who really runs the show). And Bacon’s, Hodge’s and Chapman’s characters, with their mixed motivations and tarnished nobility, aren’t sufficiently distinct.
The performances and production values may be enough to keep you around to see whether the story picks up steam, and whether MacLean finds more original ways to shape his ideas into drama. “City on a Hill” keeps threatening to be interesting and exciting, but so far it hasn’t pulled off the job.