A title like Show Me a Hero is one of enforcement, commanding an action to be done as soon as possible. Such urgency might describe the high tension encapsulating the political turmoil in the city of Yonkers circa 1988, where the city government is being threatened to be held in contempt if they do not create enough low-income housing on its east side, which is dominated by a perfectly happy white, conservative middle class. Really, no one on the Yonkers city council wants this to happen, and when Oscar Isaac's Nick Wasicsko, a councilman running for mayor, vociferously makes the point that no one will change the social and economic landscape of their city as his platform, many residents fervently stand by him.
The HBO miniseries, championed by television auteur David Simon, writer William Zorzi, and director Paul Haggis (who directed all of the six episodes), intriguingly plays on the notion of heroes throughout the narrative. Wasicsko is certainly the hero in question, but we know very early on that he is not a hero in the traditional sense and he is not the only one. No, Show Me a Hero excels in depicting heroes of the everyday, depicting heroes that are not blatantly good, or bad, for that matter. That, or heroes seem to emerge in the most subtle of places...proving the people at the top, with all eyes on them, are sometimes not the ones who make the biggest difference.
There will be some spoilers throughout (though nothing mentioned with much clarity, only implicitly referenced). Nevertheless, proceed with caution.
Simon is known to make extremely socially conscious shows. What I mean by 'extreme' is the tendency to not shy away from the political and social logistics manifesting under the clearer, and more topical, conflicts. The council meetings, court hearings, campaign discourse are all the realms of Simon's intricate unveiling of drama, places where many other filmmakers reserve their montages since they lack the understanding, or patience, to observe such civil functions. Yet, Simon knows better because much of the decisions being made in these 'boring' exchanges have substantial ripple effects. So when the ensemble cast of Show Me a Hero portrays a general overview of the social spectrum in Yonkers, this story must focus on the verbose banalities of political discourse as conflict generation for the characters who never set foot in a government building.
For the most part, it works, but you must be patient. Between the white Yonkers characters and the minority public-housing characters (mostly black but some Latino), these two groups and their stories are separate for most of the miniseries until the housing plans are finally enacted. While Simon's intentions are clear in how to write these characters, sometimes the limiting duration of the miniseries works against nuance. While Isaac is allowed much screen time (seeing that he is the protagonist), the many minority tenants who have all sorts of problems always feel abbreviate, even if the plot points and beats of their trajectory work, there are moments that feel stinted, almost forced, in a way that throws tragedy upon tragedy onto these characters but we move on to another part of the story and ensemble before we can contemplate.
The cost of such weaknesses make it seem too apparent that these characters want to move into the new housing. Or, another way of saying, it makes their current situation in the west side public housing as conveniently bad. Moreover, it doesn't help that two of these characters face problems with having children, which may suggest thin generalities, but that isn't as distracting. Despite these weaknesses, the presentation of their current mess with housing does create tension for when the availability of the new, controversial residential buildings open. We root for Wasicsko to get enough votes to pass the housing plans and we root for these marginalized characters to start anew. Part 5 may feature one of the best scenes in the series with its lottery, where the housing committee randomly chooses future tenants. We see the faces of these people who all seek refuge in a place that they don't know will admonish their presence. We also see the face of Wasicsko, who sits and observes, as he realizes that he may never get the appreciation he thinks he deserves and his sympathy for these people turns into self-loathing.
But let us return to the show's themes which possess a potent familiarity with what America is facing currently. Systemic racism, the meaning of a home (home is where the heart is, some would say, but more important where the identity is), and the failure or obfuscations of political institutions. Though Wasicsko eventually got enough votes to begin the new housing projects under the ire of the Yonkers citizens, he essentially had to do this or the city would go bankrupt. Watch closely how he begins to realize what he reluctantly acted upon that made his mayoral tenure hellish was actually the 'right side of history.' Again, in lieu with the overarching theme of heroes, Wasicsko is completely fascinating.
One of Simon's long running themes in his works, rampant in The Wire and relevant in Treme, is politics as an amoral, sometimes disjointed means of finding solutions to social problems. It is amoral in the sense that politics tries to balance out the necessity to get something done and the necessity for an individual to remain in office. Tradecraft may be favored instead of practical action and even action that is deemed good (or bad) is detached from any personal sense of morality. Isaac's Wasicsko is the human vessel of Simon's theme, lying on the same gradient as The Wire's Tony Carcetti. Carcetti promised much progressive reform and was slammed with a huge deficit from the previous Baltimore mayor that forever tied him up from acting on those promises. Wasicsko faces similar conflicts, though twisted and altered in an intriguing manner. Isaac delivers a performance that never fails to strike the ambivalent balance of obscured intentions.
There are a slew of familiar faces and great character actors. Wynona Rider fits well as a flamboyant but driven councilwoman. John Bernthal uses his almost typified arrogance as an effective NAACP lawyer. Clark Peters, one of the greatest of all television actors and possibly good friends with Simon, makes an appearance at some point to become a voice of reason so collected and nuanced he may or may not have upstaged mostly everyone else he shares the screen with.
Catherine Keener makes one of the most bizarrely pleasant performances in the show. Nevermind her hair being slightly awkward (maybe we can never acclimate to it in six episodes), and the potential cost of the abbreviation of her character arc, Keener plays a conservative homeowner who gradually learns to accept change and the realization that, as one minor character puts it, "...low income does not mean low class." And while this acceptance is shown with an eccentric heft where Keener may be channeling the real life individual her character is based off of, it is maybe a little disappointing that her biggest pivot is shown through montage. With montage, each short spurt of a moment is followed by another, effortlessly indicating the change of a character with little to no obstacle. Even if there were an obstacle, the character would overcome it in the next two to three shots. For such a fascinating character, and one we could certainly want to observe more of in this day in age, the convenience of montage is a disservice to the lessons of acceptance and understanding.
Weaknesses withal, there is an appreciating level of attentiveness that illuminates a story less-traveled. With not much effort, one could apply, or compare, or mix the issues and stories of our contemporary time with the stories we watch unfold in this miniseries. I think Simon understood this societal echo, or refrain, unflinchingly. With his unwavering tendency to look at the issues and all of the consequences relating to these issues, he asks us not to sentimentalize, simplify, or idealize the oppression, struggles, and potentially black and white dichotomy. Even with issues as 'easy' as housing affordability and racism, there are still grey areas because the people that approach these issues are never simplex, never unchanging. Show Me a Hero falls comfortably in the Simon canon, in spite of being his weakest work...weakest for Simon may be the best for most writers in America.