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COMMENTARY

Tom Fontana has a career first in Showtime's 'City on a Hill'

Alan Pergament

Buffalo writer Tom Fontana’s award-winning career has spanned four decades in television, but he is doing something for the first time working on Showtime’s “City on the Hill.”

“It is the first time in my career that I haven’t been involved in a project from the beginning,” said Fontana in a telephone interview. “But everybody has been very willing to listen to me and let me take charge of the running of the show.”

Fontana, 67, was convinced to be the showrunner by Gary Levine, one of the co-presidents of entertainment for Showtime, after the pilot written by Boston native and feature film writer Chuck MacLean was shot.

“I thought it was wonderfully written and wonderfully acted so I said, ‘OK I’ll come on board,’ ” said Fontana. “I had some thoughts in terms of structure and missing things. We did do reshoots and restructuring … It is just my Jesuit mind. It has to be logical.”

He is in the process of finishing the last of the 10 episodes.

The result will be on display at 9 p.m. Sunday on the pay-cable channel. But the first episode already is being streamed for free on YouTube, Facebook and SHO.com.

“We’re almost done shooting,” said Fontana. “I have been in showrunner marathon.”

Fontana is in familiar territory working on the series.

It is set in Boston in the early 1990s, with famous Bostonians Ben Affleck and Matt Damon among the executive producers. Boston is the city where Fontana’s first TV hit, “St. Elsewhere,” was located.

The series – which pretty much defines the word “gritty” – deals with crime, politics, corruption, race, sexism and religion, some areas successfully mined in Fontana’s “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Oz.”

“I’m always looking for ways to speak about the world we live in now through another lens,” said Fontana. “And 1992 Boston gives you a pretty wide palette of what America is going through now in terms of all those issues.”

Fontana is not credited as the writer of the first three episodes made available for review, but he finishes the final draft of each episode of a series that is a fictionalized take on how Boston changed for the better in the '90s.

“I decided that we have a lot of really talented writers and I have enough credit,” said Fontana.

Inside the creative process of one of Buffalo's greatest exports: Writers

Kevin Bacon stars as Jackie Rohr, an outrageous, immoral, corrupt FBI agent who eventually forges an alliance with an African American assistant district attorney, Decourcy Ward, who thinks or hopes he can change the world. Ward is played by Aldis Hodge (“Underground”).

The cast also includes Jonathan Tucker, a star of NBC’s short-lived “Black Donnellys,” as Frankie Ryan, a murderous armored car robber and family man with an out-of-control brother that his wife understandably worries will mess up the whole criminal operation. Jill Hennessy also is aboard as Jackie’s ignored and frustrated wife, Jenny.

“At its heart, the show is about families,” said Fontana. “The Ryans, the Rohrs, Decourcy and his wife Siobhan (Lauren E. Banks), families trying to survive in a very difficult time and place.”

Fontana’s repertory acting family appears in the early episodes. The actors who have appeared in previous Fontana series include Dean and Scott Winters, Lee Tergesen and Mark Ryder. Buffalo native Tom Mardirosian also is aboard as an older priest in one of the first three episodes offering Rohr’s wife some questionable marriage advice. Ryder plays the younger priest who is more sympathetic.

Bacon unquestionably is one of the primary reasons to watch as Rohr, who has a cocky ability to navigate a flawed justice system in which bad guys sometimes get off for the greater good.

Since everyone knows Jackie, one cop describes him as “the Doug Flutie” of the FBI. Jackie also can be philosophical. At the start of the third episode, he quotes famed columnist Jimmy Breslin.

He also describes Roy Cohn, who has been viewed as President Trump’s mentor and personal lawyer, as a horrible person with a plan that works: “You hold on to a lie against all evidence and there is nothing you can do.”

Some of Bacon’s stronger scenes are the confrontational ones with Hennessy, who does some of her best work here playing the aggrieved wife to a sexist man her mother detests.

“He is so good in this part and he is so much fun to work with,” said Fontana. “He is No. 1 on the call sheet, which technically is the most important person on the show. But you would never know from the way he behaves. He is so generous to the other actors, to the crew, to the writers, the directors. He is just great.”

Bacon’s wife, actress Kyra Sedgwick, directs the seventh episode. She and Fontana worked together on a failed pilot. They ran into each other at an off-Broadway play and began talking in front of the theater. Sedgwick then asked if she could direct an episode.

“I said, ‘absolutely, I’d love to have you do it,’ ” said Fontana. “Kevin was not consulted in the least.”

One of Boston’s most famous criminals, Whitey Bulger, gets the least attention you can imagine. He is mentioned in one script but otherwise ignored.

“The Whitey Bulger story has been done and there is so much else going in this period that is just as interesting if not more than him,” said Fontana. “We didn’t feel we needed him.”

The first three episodes made available for review establish the unwritten rules of Boston justice that Ward must learn quickly to survive.

A principled lawyer who many policemen detest because he was on a mission to catch bad cops, Ward’s ability to adjust to working with Jackie is one of the dynamics of the series.

“That’s why he is such a fascinating character and why Aldis Hodge is so brilliant in the part,” said Fontana. “This is a guy who is constantly going back and forth between the white and the black and trying to maintain his sense of self and idealism in a system that is determined to defeat any kind of new idea or moral responsibility.

“Throughout the whole season, there are moments Jackie is winning, moments Ward is winning and times both are winning, and both are losing. That is the fun of the episode. On a weekly basis, you can’t go at the end of the hour, ‘things will be fine.’ It may not be fine, and it may be fine.”

One thing is for sure regarding “City on a Hill”: with Fontana running the show, everything will be fine.

apergament@buffnews.com

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