As many TV watchers will know, when writer David Simon creates a TV series (or miniseries), he never just skims a subject’s the surface, or even makes it easy. He dissects its very minutia with the narrative nuance and accuracy of a forensic scientist, leaving viewers to draw the conclusions. As such, there are many things to be gleaned from his new HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero, which he co-wrote with his fellow Wire alum Bill Zorzi (the 6-part series is directed by Crash’s Paul Haggis). But overall, the many layers in this murky exploration lead largely to uncertainty. And that’s ok.
Show Me a Hero, based on New York Times writer Lisa Belkin’s 1999 nonfiction book, chronicles the quick rise and fall of Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), a young, real-life Yonkers politico with an (initially) inspiring idealism for office. Wasicsko entered the mayoral race at a time when a controversial, federally-mandated housing bill was being hotly contested by residents, who refused to allow low-income housing projects into their neighborhoods. Racist-led fears split apart the community, and Wasicsko was caught in the middle of it.
On the surface, Show Me a Hero sounds like a heroic tale of a young politician ready to make a difference, fighting racism in 1980s New York. But the truth of the tale is far more muddled, as Wasicsko always keeps his stance on the project close to the simple call for court compliance, rather than that of moral high ground.
Show Me a Hero’s story is largely bleak, and through its six parts (airing in pairs over consecutive Sundays), a portrait of race-torn America emerges through the lens of Yonkers. It’s a timely work, as almost 20 years later the country is still similarly struggling with segregated cities and hot-button racial issues. But more than anything, Show Me a Hero is a collection of (sometimes tenuously connected) vignettes with Wasicsko at the center, showcasing life and the changing fortunes within Yonkers itself.
To that end, the miniseries can occasionally feel too heavy-handed in its moralisms, not always shading its “lessons” with Simon’s more typical subtleties. It’s not as much homework as Treme was, even for its charms, but it’s also less charming than the The Wire (or the vastly underrated Generation Kill). Tracking the changes, restrictions, concessions, and costs of the housing bill is not a glamorous backdrop on which to set a story, and Simon and Zorzi approach it with dogged authenticity. Yet, because of the incredible strength of the acting, Show Me a Hero is never slow. It can feel a little overlong, but the cast — including Jon Bernthal, Alfred Molina, James Belushi, and Peter Riegert (along with a number of Wire alumns) in addition to Isaac as the desperate, magnetic anchor — keeps the story ever-vibrant, and Haggis captures the mood and atmosphere wonderfully, while keeping period details relevant, but never overwhelming. Some rooms crackle with electricity and others are silent. Music montages are well-placed, but the diegetic roar of a crowd is its own cacophony. It’s easy to get swept up in it all, as Wasicsko did — except he let it consume him totally.
As far as the titular hero, there really isn’t one. The title comes from the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy,” and while this story is without a de facto hero, it is still a tragedy. That isn’t to say though that heroes plural don’t emerge — in fact, it’s the women of the story who are the downtrodden saviors. Among the political posturing and elections and arguments over who deserves what, the women quietly toil and keep things afloat for themselves and their families. From Catherine Keener’s East Yonkers resident who goes from staunch opponent to the housing bill to one of its greatest defenders, to LaTanya Richardson-Jackson’s home health nurse with failing eyesight (in a truly award-worthy role), to hard-working moms Doreen Henderson (Natalie Paul) and Alma Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera), and politicos like Vinni Restiano (Winona Ryder) and Wasicsko’s wife Nay (Carla Quevedo), these grounded women bring a warmth to Show Me a Hero’s cold City Hall politics and sad realities.
Show Me a Hero isn’t perfect, but it does the right kind of job capturing the atmosphere and politics of late 80s Yonkers, and the men and women who dwelled and struggled there. It can be heavy-handed, dense, and referential, but it can also be uplifting and even, occasionally, a little humorous (and the great Isaac makes for a charming, complicated lead). It’s a difficult work, but worth an investment — though by no means would I suggest it has broad appeal. But, Simon has never cared about that. No one makes social document television like he does, and he knows it. His particular zeal and talent for exploring the twisted underbelly of the mid-sized American city can be as exhausting as it is exhaustive, but it’s also what makes Show Me a Hero part of a well-earned legacy for Simon. It just also happens to run alongside a fairly damning legacy for a systemically broken country, then and now.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Damn Fine Television
Show Me a Hero premieres Sunday, August 16th at 9 p.m on HBO. It will run in 4-hour blocks over three consecutive Sundays.