The summer is always a good time to launch a good crime story on TV.
If “Big Little Lies” trades in California house porn, rich white lady supremacy and the cattiest dialogue since 1939’s “The Women,” the Boston-set “City on Hill,” premiering Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime, is aggressively shabby — introducing us to a motley crew of racist, blue-collar losers and the women who had the misfortune to marry them when they were young.
They go to crummy bars, breathe the same stale air day after day and treat their loved ones with withering sarcasm and disdain. Unlike the manicured ladies of “BLL,” they don’t even pretend life is wonderful. Like the Tom Waits song says, it’s nasty, brutish and short.
Kevin Bacon has possibly the meatiest role of his career as Jackie Rohr, a venerated yet sleazy FBI agent who cheats on his wife, stops in at the free clinic on his way home from a booty call “for a scrape” and is up to his eyeballs in dirty deals. With his Vitalis-slicked mullet, he’s clearly a throwback, believing that “what used to make this city great is that it was run by bad men,” although he’s been warned that it’s “not 1983 anymore.” Rohr teams up with Brooklyn-born Assistant District Attorney DeCourcey Ward (Aldis Hodge) to take down a gang of armored truck robbers in nearby Charlestown. An idealist like Ward is the perfect foil to scuzzballs like Rohr. “Guys like me, we need guys like you,” Rohr says.
The armored-truck robbery is connected to an old missing-persons case that necessitates the help of additional investigators such as Rachel Behnam (Sarah Shahi, looking like a lost Ronette with her piles of hair and Maybelline) and what seems like an average cops-and-robbers story gets more intricate and layered, even touching on Boston race relations as Ward and his wife (Lauren E. Banks) witness the public execution of a gang member.
Creator Chuck MacLean takes us into the homes and workplaces of this hapless crew of thieves and killers. Supermarket stock boy Frankie Ryan (an excellent Jonathan Tucker) is the ringleader. His younger brother, Tommy (Mark O’Brien), is a volatile drug addict who is also one of Rohr’s paid informants. Frankie’s wife, Kathleen (Amanda Clayton), is a beautician at a broken-down beauty parlor who launders the money that Frankie and his crew steal. What she can’t make disappear is hidden behind a bathroom medicine chest that has a habit of coming unhinged.
In addition to the brisk writing, executive producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, who gave us the landmark series “Homicide: Life on the Street,” have assembled a top-notch cast, introduced in delicious increments. In addition to Shahi, there’s Jill Hennessy as Rohr’s wife, a woman so lonely she turns to her parish priest for advice on her sex life. Kevin Chapman of “Person of Interest” steals a few scenes as a defiant cop caught up in the system. Best of all, Cathy Moriarty (“Raging Bull”) plays the sour-pussed Ryan matriarch, who protects her wayward sons at any cost. If looks could kill, she’d finish off Rohr while pouring him a cup of tea.
Viewers accustomed to today’s fast-paced, plot-heavy crime shows may find that the rich character development of “City on a Hill” slows down the show, but like HBO’s terrific “The Night Of” from a few seasons back, the people and the place are just as essential to this story as the crime.