Before saying anything else, there’s no reason to bury the lede, which is, incidentally, an expression that fits extraordinarily well here. HBO’s Show Me a Hero began Sunday night, and it’s not just something you should see; it’s something you absolutely must see. Any list of the best television of the year, irrespective to certain parameters regarding episodic or anthological or miniseries or some other constraint or classification, will undoubtedly include this likely multi-Emmy award winning six part drama event. Two words should be enough to sell it, but this review will then follow with several hundred more to knock the point home. Those two words:
Simon created and served as showrunner for The Wire, widely regarded as the greatest television drama of my lifetime. I’m 36. Even before The Wire, there was Homicide: Life on the Street on NBC. On my Outkick drama list, The Wire landed at number four, but it’s as good as television can get. Following The Wire and The Corner, Simon tackled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans with the critical hit, Treme, which was vastly overlooked and didn’t find the ratings success it deserved.
Here, Simon partners with Paul Haggis (Crash), who said in an interview that he has long wanted to work with the acclaimed television mastermind and joked that if Simon had developed an idea about the history of footwear, “that’s what we would be discussing now.” Once again, HBO becomes the primary benefactor of a story that likely couldn’t have been told as effectively almost anywhere else. It’s undeniable that political leanings do play a role in Show Me a Hero, but whether or not a viewer fully agrees with one side or another; the story itself is both riveting and timely. It isn’t right and left. It’s right and wrong.
Show Me a Hero, which airs in two-hour blocks beginning this Sunday, tells the true story of the fight for and against desegregating Yonkers, New York, through public housing initiatives and a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department and the NAACP. The tale was first chronicled in former New York Times reporter Lisa Belkin’s book of the same name, “Show Me a Hero: A Tale of Murder, Suicide, Race, and Redemption.” The title derives from a classic F. Scott Fitzgerald quote:
“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”
While it’s easy to research the story and find out the results and the fates of all the men and women involved in the miniseries, I’d advise that you let it play out on screen first and then look deeper into the story after the fact. If you don’t already know how it ends and the way the history progressed, there’s no reason to deny narrative novelty. Because of that opinion, though I’ve seen all six parts in advance, I’ll do my best not to spoil everything for those who would rather go in without any deep knowledge.
As a viewer, it’s impossible not to question where today’s society exists juxtaposed to Hero’s time period and this small snapshot shows how difficult and painful it can be to truly affect change. This isn’t a progressive versus conservative argument. It’s simply that on either side, being closed-minded to almost anything, being unwilling to listen, and being a robot, does nothing to move a debate along. Throughout Show Me a Hero, you’ll see the East Yonkers residents screaming for change and demanding appeals, even though local officials had already gone through every remedy available to them. The idea of backing down or just giving up on the fight seems completely unacceptable to them, but they seem to be entirely oblivious to what’s actually possible and also what it might cost the city to defy the ruling.
The lawsuit came as a result of evidence proving Yonkers officials had used federal housing money to deliberately segregate the city near the Saw Mill River Parkway. On the west were the lower income residents, an area ravaged and dilapidated, dangerous and riddled with crime. On the east were the middle and upper class and almost all were white. The fight in court led U.S. District Judge Leonard Sand (Bob Balaban) to find that Yonkers must build 200 units of low-income housing on the “white” side of the Parkway and later 800 more units of affordable housing.
A theory, developed by Oscar Newman, purported that townhouses and different concepts would help avoid slums and the high-rises that had been documented for many years. The Wire showcased both low-rise and high-rise housing projects, so Simon understands the depiction and also the reality. His work as a crime reporter in Baltimore helped formulate the foundation of that series, and Show Me a Hero on occasion could be mistaken for The Wire at a distance. It’s not the same story, but some of the wide shots of West Yonkers showcase areas that look perfect for Marlo or Avon’s crew.
It’s here that the miniseries begins, as Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) runs for mayor against a long-standing incumbent, Angelo Martinelli (Jim Belushi), primarily by promising to appeal Sand’s incredibly unpopular decision. He becomes the youngest mayor of a major city in the country, but also begins to believe in the rule of law. Although he moves forward with the appeal, once it’s denied, he votes in meeting after meeting to approve the new housing requirements. He also begins to side with the minority, which leads to the tag line on the Show Me a Hero advertising:
“How does a politician know he’s doing the right thing? We make him pay.”
He’s in the minority and the voters feel cheated, and there’s the catalyst for the political maneuvering, backstabbing, treachery, and ultimately, the tragedy that befits Fitzgerald’s line. His career gets dragged through the mud, destroying almost every relationship in his life, including in large measure his marriage to city employee Nay (Carla Quevedo).
Outside of the bureaucracy and the false promises and Wasicsko’s political downfall, Simon and his longtime collaborator, former Baltimore Sun political reporter William F. Zorzi, tell the story of some of the residents on both sides of the fight. We see an immigrant and her family, trapped in the poverty and uncertainty of West Yonkers high-rise living, a legally blind Diabetic trying to keep it together, a young mother, married to a violent criminal, and another young mother who falls into drug addiction and pulls herself out of it to lead the tenant association. East Yonkers resident Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener) begins in vehement opposition to the housing, but later becomes instrumental in the integration and also aids the new residents as they struggle to find acceptance. Her character is the best mirror to indicate the positive results of the ordeal. Wasicsko is a glimpse of the negative in terms of the cost of following his heart as he attempts to govern a fractured, nearly shattered city.
Once the housing construction begins and the first people move into their new homes, an entirely new set of problems emerge, ones that continue to plague certain areas of the country. And, of course, the undercurrents of everything are the many stacks of green that are presumably at stake and the power that accompanies that wealth. Property values, salaries, elections, manipulation, popularity, political ideology, and old-fashioned nasty, cringe-worthy racism and class warfare, it’s all here.
One thing at which David Simon has always been supremely talented is making everything fit within everything he writes or creates. His rubric is generally impeccable. I wrote about The Wire that it often felt like someone just turned on a camera in Baltimore and filmed what actually happened. Show Me a Hero, while it does have more defined scenes, still has the feeling of life in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He and Zorzi weave a complex narrative, but nothing feels out of place. Paul Haggis’ directorial work is truly sublime. The West looks like hell and the East looks like a cold, jagged, angry world. Each character is humanized, outside perhaps of Councilman Henry Spallone (Alfred Molina), who is the politician with empty promises and no intention of fulfillment. It’s easy to say things. It’s much harder to do things. When one knows he or she can’t possibly accomplish something, saying it is the epitome of scumbaggery. Each time he appeared, it was hard not to see Donald Trump. Molina’s voice even sounds like the Donald. Haggis is adept at painting a visual of the human condition, just as Simon and Zorzi are exceptional at writing about it.
This is an ugly story, but the acting is anything but. Oscar Isaac, who was better than his source material in 2014’s A Most Violent Year and was stellar in Ex Machina, will be taking home hardware for his work as Wasiscko. It’s as impressive a performance as I’ve seen this year outside of Rami Malek on Mr. Robot. Keener’s Mary Dorman is believable, flawed, and understandable in her evolution. It’s easy to forget Catherine is even playing the role, which is also true for Isaac. Everyone in this cast seemed built for these roles. The talent list is loaded, including some David Simon mainstays. Clarke Peters (The Wire, Treme) plays housing consultant Robert Mayhawk, just as one example. Jon Bernthal continues to grow as a performer. He was solid in The Walking Dead, but as NAACP attorney Michael Sussman, he finds the sweet spot. Like Isaac, Bernthal is a name on the rise.
Simon also knows how to use music in a series unlike anyone we’ve ever seen. Music in The Wire was almost always organic, coming from a car stereo that would get louder or someone’s boom box. Show Me a Hero is a bit different, as it relies heavily on Bruce Springsteen classics, but several times those tunes do come through character actions and not someone turning on the music pot on a mixer. Bruce as the prevalent portion of the soundtrack works in a big way, and it begins within the first five minutes of Part One.
As mediocre and overdone as True Detective was for the last eight weeks, Show Me a Hero is the exact opposite for the next three Sunday nights. Unfortunately, the series is timely, not for the specific issue, but certainly accurate to the larger and widening divide between class and race in America. Today, it’s often generated through misinformation or ginned up by politicians on either side for votes. Sadly, sometimes the divide comes from hatred or ignorance or fear. This story comes from a different time, and while America has come a long way, miles remain before the journey is over.
Paul Haggis describes reading the story the first time in this way. “Working from Lisa’s terrific book, Bill and David handed me a compelling story of flawed individuals trying to do what they believe is right for their community, people struggling to make better lives for their families, and those just trying to hang on to what they have.”
Haggis was the perfect choice to direct, Simon and Zorzi the only choices to develop Belkin’s book, and Isaac the ideal lead. The story doesn’t leave a warm feeling, ending in foreseeably somber fashion, but the larger scope does not exit without a tinge of hope. The entire six-hour miniseries is laid out so methodically; the truth of the story explained so well, with such attention to detail and emotion, that it’s the very definition of a must-see television event. Missing it should not be an option. It’s one of the finest achievements of the year on numerous fronts. When I finished Part Two, I wondered why it wasn’t a longer effort, but by Part Six, it was clear the story was told at a precise length, didn’t require filler or throwaway content, and completed its circle.
Show Me a Hero premiered on HBO, HBOGO, and HBONow Sunday, August 16th, with Parts One and Two from 8 to 10 PM ET. Parts Three and Four air on 8/23, also 8-10, and Parts Five and Six (an extended finale) will conclude the miniseries on 8/30, beginning at 8 PM ET.
Do me a solid and hit that follow button over @GuyNamedJason on the tweets. I have to say, it would be pretty rad of you. You’re the real hero.