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Jeff Simon: Sunday peak TV's bad boys Vs. empowered women

Jeff Simon

When last we left Chuck Rhodes Jr., he was fully dressed in his S&M leathers, completely tied up and suspended horizontally from the ceiling. It was the season finale of Showtime's "Billions" and Paul Giamatti, as Rhodes, had decided his manipulative behavior in that episode had been rotten enough to earn much-desired physical punishment by his dominatrix.

When Showtime picks up "Billions'" time slot this weekend, it will introduce, in the opening scene of "City on a Hill," Jackie Rohr, a flamboyantly misbehaving and corrupt Boston FBI bully whose cock-of-the-walk strut and smirk mark him as another of Showtime's Sunday night Masters of All They Survey. As always, the delicious part is the actor playing the role -- Kevin Bacon, the tireless, ubiquitous and hugely disciplined character actor whose featured star performances are far more sparse and less weighty than they probably ought to be.

Not this time. Bacon is giving a light heavyweight performance as a rough, tough brutish Boston FBI agent with a weird penchant for quoting Lincoln Steffens. He's not exactly in the same league as Jack Nicholson in "The Departed" or Christian Bale in "The Fighter," but then, at long last, Bacon gets a big, juicy chance to show what he can do when we're not all taking him for granted. On a lesser level, it's Cagney-like, i.e. a performance as a street-level brute by a guy whose bag of tricks also includes some fancy stuff as a dance man (see "Footloose," in which Bacon fought the rural prudes for the right to dance, by golly).

Here's what else is happening at the exact same time in this weekend's typical peak TV fiesta: Meryl Streep is returning for the second week of HBO's second season continuation of "Big Little Lies," which was such an unexpected award-winning smash that it -- once again -- performed one of TV's obnoxious bullyings and forced the Australian writer of the original adapted novel to join forces with TV pros to continue a story that was originally intended to be singular and wholly coherent -- one and done, as they say.

That's the TV way: If it rings the chimes in one season, by God, there will be another season no matter how much arm-twisting, hackwork and financial bludgeoning have to be performed against anyone's better judgement.

In this case, something more than a little notable had been done in the first "Big Little Lies," which made the big, juicy narrative taffy pull of the show's second season a bit less gratuitous than it might have been.

The man who wrote all of the terrific original season for HBO's mini-series was the redoubtable David E. Kelley, one of the more venerable pros of smart-aleck weekly TV in earlier decades ("Ally McBeal," "Boston Public," "Picket Fences"). The original "Big Little Lies" was not only minimalist and radically different from the rest of his output, it was to me, by far, the best thing he'd ever done.

I've seen the first three episodes of both shows and, while it's no match for the original "Big Little Lies," it maintains enough of its virtues in Kelley's scripts to keep everyone watching. That will happen when you have, for novelty, Streep using all her performing intelligence in a character part as a loving gargoyle who arrived in Monterrey to console her now-fatherless grandchildren and to find out what really happened to her wife-beating son on that flight of stairs. How exactly did he wind up at the bottom of it with his skull split open forever?

You've got to love Streep as much as you love Bacon. She's clearly enjoying the heck out of the kind of lesser part she doesn't get to take often -- while Bacon is doing the same thing with the kind of dominating star flamboyance that usually belongs to the Nicholsons of this world.

Kelley, obviously, is enjoying the heck out of writing it for Streep.

But then he has, as always in this story, much bigger fish to fry than whodunit. What resurfaces in flashback is something we rarely see on TV -- Nicole Kidman, no less, as a woman who was caught up in a relationship where she could only find sexual fulfillment in rough sex with a husband who beat her senseless. It was the startling award-winning performance in the first mini-series and it deepens in its "second season."

Kelley isn't working on the same level as he was the first time around, but then if anyone knows the trials of those who need to keep audience attentions in week-to-week TV, it's David E. Kelley. I'm glad to see the foxiness of such old pros as Kelley and Streep, but I still wish, for the sake of integrity, the story in Liane Moriarty's original novel had been left to stand alone without a sequel.

"City on a Hill" is an original, but it too ensnared a pro from weekly grind-it-out TV to keep it magnetic. In this case, the original scripts by Chuck MacLean are being showcased by no less a showrunner than Buffalo's own Tom Fontana, the man who gave the world "St. Elsewhere,' "Homicide" and "Oz."

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

I've seen the first three episodes of "Hill," too and, so far, all the juice is coming from the performance of Bacon getting to stretch his acting muscles like a star and loving it (his wife, Kyra Sedgwick, will show up in a later episode as an episode director).

Co-starring as the handsome, but stiff, prosecutor is Aldis Hodge, whose straightness and rectitude are counterpoint for Bacon having all of the series' on-camera fun.

It's a pleasant, premium TV addition to that development that became so prominent in the past 20 years -- that the center of movie and TV taut, blue-collar realism shifted from the streets of New York, with all those decades a city's nakedness and dog day afternoons, to Boston and blue collar Massachusetts in general. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon announced it all in "Good Will Hunting," but it continued with "The Departed," "Manchester by the Sea," "The Town," "Mystic River," "The Fighter," "Spotlight," "Gone Baby Gone," "Black Mass," "Patriot's Day and "Infinitely Polar Bear."

That's what happens when writers love their hometowns and state pols are assiduous about giving tax and other breaks to visiting Hollwoodians.

For devoted consumers of what we now call peak TV, no DVR will be able to handle such Sunday plenitude.

Yet another must-see TV for such consumers will be CBS' showing of "The Good Fight," which spun off the tale of the venerable "The Good Wife," but did so on a CBS cable network where it was supposed to be the biggest (and almost only) draw.

Christine Baranski -- another venerable Buffalo pillar of prime-time TV -- starred in the series that was shown only on CBS All Access as bait to establish the channel itself. In that ambition it didn't succeed.

Now, thank heaven, it's available on ordinary prime-time TV of a sort that even dogs and cats can watch, which makes for a collision of terrifically tempting television that will be utterly insoluble for those who aren't used to making liberal use of cable TV's on demand functions.

Sunday, then, is when the Bad Boys of Showtime do viewer battle against the battered women of HBO and Baranski's persistence on CBS.

If you're not interested in any of this prime TV stuff, I'm just not sure anyone can help you.

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