LOS ANGELES — Tom Fontana can look back with satisfaction on the series he’s created or helped make, with some of TV’s best among them, including “St. Elsewhere,” “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Oz.”
But he’s using retrospection in service of another worthy drama, Showtime’s “City on a Hill.” It’s back for its second season (10 p.m. EDT Sunday) with Kevin Bacon and Aldis Hodge as increasingly fierce adversaries in early 1990s, crime-bedeviled Boston.
As executive producer Fontana sees it, the past is an ideal home for drama that can reflect current American fault lines without forcing viewers to squirm through a lecture.
“You’re able to deal with things that are contemporary without having it seem like you’re trying to make a point,” Fontana said in an interview. “I’ve always felt my job as a writer has been to ask questions, and for people who are watching the show to maybe think about the answers.”
Landmines including racism and systemic failure are part of “City on a Hill,” along with the elements of other Fontana-steered shows: storytelling with heart and intelligence and minus gimmicks, and nuanced characters that attract top-notch actors. Here, that includes respected veteran Bacon and Hodge, whose accelerating career boasts roles in the Oscar-nominated “One Night in Miami…” and the upcoming DC Comics-based “Black Adam.”
Bacon plays FBI agent Jackie Rohr, who’s sleazy but effective. His nemesis and sometimes ally-by-necessity is Hodge’s Decourcy Ward, an upright assistant district attorney who’s come to Boston as part of its police reform effort and makes it a personal crusade.
“Getting to put Jackie up there is a thrill because, like him or not,” the role is “incredibly well written,” Bacon said in a recent panel discussion. “I always feel that it’s really a question of just making sure that, bad or good, however you define those terms … that it’s an actual human being.”
There are also vivid female characters and strong actors to play them, including Lauren E. Banks, Amanda Clayton, Jill Hennessy and Pernell Walker.
Gary Levine, president of Showtime Entertainment, counts Fontana in the first rank of TV producers. Also an acclaimed writer, the New York-born Fontana’s honors include Emmys, Peabody Awards and a Humanitas Prize.
“He has the talent and soul of a playwright, is a cherished mentor to writers and directors, and is a talent magnet when it comes to actors,” Levine said in an email interview.
Fontana counts himself lucky to have Levine’s support. When real-world events — including the police-custody death of George Floyd — called for subtle changes in completed scripts, the executive agreed to bring the show’s writers back.
“We all read through the scripts, and everyone was free to make any kind of comment they wanted about what needed to be to be adjusted, whether it was language or a cultural beat,” Fontana said.
“City on a Hill,” created by Charlie MacLean and based on an idea by MacLean and actor-filmmaker Ben Affleck, was designed to rotate each season to a different section of Boston. Its eight new episodes focus on the Roxbury neighborhood and a federal housing project beset with drug violence and untrustworthy local law enforcement.
Devastating gang violence and youth homicides were a bleak reality for the real East Coast city until the arrival in the mid-1990s of what became dubbed the “Boston Miracle,” concerted change that stretched over years and which inspired the Showtime series.
“It’s remarkable what happened in Boston during this period, not that everybody and all the world was suddenly a perfect place,” Fontana said. “But the Black ministers, the community activists, the city agencies, the police department professionals, the city government all came together.”
“They said, ‘let’s stop blaming each other and let’s start using what each of us does best with each other,’” Fontana said, with the results including a sharply reduced number of fatal shootings of young people in lower-income areas.
The approach could and should influence police-reform debates fueled by the deaths of Floyd and other African Americans, Fontana said. Why it was abandoned by Boston is something “City on a Hill” has yet to explore but, he said, “you’d think that’s something not only should they have continued, but every city in this country should be doing that.”
Hodge agrees with Fontana that the past holds lessons for the present, including about what the actor called the “overt racism” that he experiences daily as a Black man in America.
“This show is one of those venues where I can communicate with people what is going on and how it is going on. Even though we are set in the ’90s, we are still living this in 2021,” Hodge said during the panel discussion.
He said he’s proud to step into his character’s shoes “and, with his mission, show what the fight is, how to fight from a different perspective, how to fight from the inside because he is a D.A., working around all of this 24/7, trying to see how to use the system to his advantage.”
Lynn Elber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber.
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