Show Me a Hero couldn’t come at a better time for HBO. The miniseries, which premieres this Sunday, directly follows the clear-cut critical failure that was True Detective‘s second season, a train wreck in eight parts that unleashed a tidal wave of speculation about the end of TV auteurism, in which television’s historically collaborative model is at least partly supplanted by the strong voice of a single showrunner. What better time, then, for one of the network’s OG scribes to return to Ground Zero of the Golden Age?
This is to say nothing of the far more important reason why Show Me a Hero is perfectly suited to August of 2015. (Besides, unlike Nic Pizzolatto, David Simon had multiple big-name collaborators on the series: he shares writing credits with former Baltimore Sun and The Wire colleague William F. Zorzi, and all six installments were directed by Paul Haggis, repentant filmmaker of Crash.) The past two years have seen growing awareness of both America’s staggering racial inequality and its roots — and there’s no one better at dramatizing the maddening, labyrinthine nature of systemic failure than Simon.
Like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” Show Me a Hero uses individual stories to illustrate the impact, and intractability, of a largely under-publicized civil rights issue: housing, and the de facto segregation perpetuated long after the peak of civil rights activism and far outside the South. Adapted from Lisa Belkin’s 2000 book of the same name, Show Me a Hero focuses on the long, ugly fight surrounding 200 units of public housing in Yonkers, the small, working-class city located just across the county border from the Bronx.
Oscar Isaac stars as the hair-helmeted Nick Wasicsko, a Democratic city councilman who fights his way into the mayor’s office with the first of many Simonian bargains (similar to Faustian bargains, but the participant thinks he’s still kept his soul). To differentiate himself from incumbent Angelo Martinelli (Jim Belushi), Wasicsko runs on a single-issue platform: fighting a 1988 ruling by Judge Leonard Sand (Bob Balaban), ordering Yonkers to get its act together and build low-income housing units on the historically white east side of town.
Wasicsko figures he’s had his cake and eaten it, too. The ruling is already a done deal, and an appeal would only waste the city’s money; he can tell his constituents his hands are tied while moving forward with the housing he’s always supported. He is, of course, dead wrong. The opposition is nasty and tenuous as only something that gets at the dark heart of the middle-class American psyche can be. Show Me a Hero is filled with cacophonous scenes that pit a beaten-down Wasicsko against a howling mob, enabled by the performatively obstinate Councilman Spallone (Alfred Molina, chomping a toothpick like nobody’s business) and personified by the quiet, determined Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener).
The machinations of Yonkers politics form only half the equation, of course. Simon distinguished The Wire by telling the stories of drug dealers as well as the cops who chased them. Here, he follows the families protesters dehumanize as “those people” as they go about their “different lifestyles”: Norma (LaTanya Richardson-Jackson), a legally blind woman who can no longer work her nursing job; Doreen (Natalie Paul), a widow who fights her way through addiction to community leadership; Alma (Ilfenesh Hadera), a single mother from the Dominican Republic struggling to support both herself and her kids.
Waciscko, of course, pays a hefty political price for doing the right thing. (In Yonkers, even following a court order under threat of civic bankruptcy constitutes an act of courage.) As Show Me a Hero unfolds, the early warning signs about Waciscko’s character come to fruition in the face of adversity. He becomes a housing martyr by accident, latching onto the issue because it was the only way to become mayor. As his lack of principles beyond political ambition becomes ever more obvious, Waciscko destroys his relationships with his allies, his wife, and eventually, himself — leaving the audience to marvel at the unlikely force behind Yonkers’ minimal progress.
His rise and slow, painful fall relay the classic Simon message that any political step forward comes with seven steps back, that no good deed goes unpunished, and that, to paraphrase one NAACP lawyer, even the hardest cynic is probably too much of an optimist when it comes to American racism. But as the eventual tenants of the new housing, Norma, Doreen, and Alma offer a more hopeful takeaway from Show Me a Hero: that even a measly 200 houses in a city of 200,000 are worth the tooth-and-nail fight for the few lives they improve, and in Dorman’s case, the few minds they change.
Show Me a Hero is thus a bittersweet thing. Rendered in exquisite period detail, complete with power suits, mom jeans, and a soundtrack that’s about 90% Springsteen, the miniseries deftly walks several lines at once. It’s a series about the grind and inertia of local politics that’s never boring, a story about the persistence of prejudice that never seems unrelentingly bleak or falsely hopeful. And it’s a story of a fight that outlasts the flawed, complicated man who slowly drifts away from its center.