Show Me a Hero is the high-quality achievement you’d expect from David Simon and Oscar Isaac.
This Mayor thing…When’s the fun part start?
Welcome home, David Simon!
Now that True Detective has mercifully ended its run, it’s time to find the next way to spend our Sunday TV time. Thankfully, you don’t even need to switch channels. Show Me a Hero debuted this week, and confirmed my hopes that David Simon would once again produce incredible television.
With all due respect to the Breaking Bad fanboys out there, I firmly believe that The Wire is the greatest drama in television history, and you can find my loving odes to it peppered all over this website. In short, the incredibly complex The Wire is Simon and co-writer/producer Ed Burns’s investigation into the bureaucratic systems present in the city of Baltimore, and how they affect the people who interact with them on a daily basis. The show followed a wide cast of cops, lawyers, politicians, drug dealers, and teachers as each was let down by the institutions controlling their lines of work. Other TV dramas have gone emotionally deeper (Breaking Bad) and more literary (Mad Men, Friday Night Lights), but no other drama has so captured the cultural and moral complexities of American life. As Simon himself has said, The Wire is really about how we live together in an American city.
After The Wire’s end, Simon worked on the Iraq War miniseries Generation Kill and Treme, a series about musicians in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Both have their supporters, but neither rose quite to the level of his greatest successes, and that’s because neither show is firmly in Simon’s wheelhouse. What Simon does best is showing the humanity affected by policy. That’s what makes Show Me a Hero so promising. The story of Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko and his attempts to reform public housing in the 1980s is the type of story where Simon excels. Instead of re-teaming with Burns, Simon has instead brought Academy Award winning writer and director Paul Haggis into the fold for extra clout. “Haggis!?” you ask? Yes, the director behind one of the Academy’s most hated Best Picture winners ever. That Paul Haggis. But don’t worry. He’s surrounded by a wealth of other talents.
Much of The Wire’s success was built on the work of fantastic character actors. If you know who Idris Elba, Dominic West, and Aiden Gillen are, it’s only because of their later turns after their acclaimed work on the HBO drama. The cast was largely a no-name crew, and that works fantastically on an ensemble show. Show Me a Hero, however, is built around the journey of a single man, and Simon needs a strong actor for the part. Wisely, that man is Oscar Isaac. Isaac isn’t as large marquee name as DiCaprio or Depp, but he’s perfect for this part. I couldn’t care less about the size of his name. I think Isaac is one of the finest actors around, and he can play an everyman in a way that those other big names couldn’t. Well, the type of everyman that becomes the mayor of an American city at 28, anyway. Household names like Catherine Keener, Alfred Molina, Winona Ryder, Jim Belushi, and Jon Bernthal are along for the ride too.
So with David Simon, Oscar Isaac, and an ideal story all rolled together there was no way I was going to miss Show Me a Hero. There’s so much great promise. What’s even better is that it’s as good as you dare would hope it is.
The plot is pretty simple. When City Councilman Nick Wasicsko is elected the mayor of Yonkers, he’s the youngest mayor of a major American city in the United States. This reality is made possible by highlighting his opposition to a court-mandated housing desegregation ruling in a contentious election. Wasicsko soon finds, however, that the court’s rulings cannot be fought, and continuing to do so will bankrupt the city, so Wasicsko soon finds himself leading the unpopular desegregation movement. As biographies of Wasicsko say, he wasn’t pro-housing desegregation. He was pro-compliance.
In typical Simon fashion, the miniseries also features storylines from a variety of viewpoints surrounding the issue. Catherine Keener plays a white housewife who opposes low-income housing plans involving her neighborhood. Alfred Molina’s associate mayor Spallone is Wasicsko’s political rival, and the leader for keeping segregated housing in place. Natalie Paul features as a young African-American woman forced back into public housing by circumstance. Simon and his team may favor one moral position over the other, but they give voice to all of them. Of particular note is Keener who brings humanity to a subconsciously racist and discriminatory position. After Mayor Wasicsko throws her out of a city council meeting, she calls his office to voice her displeasure for his actions, and she finds herself speaking with Wasicsko himself. She’s shocked to learn that his personal opinions on the housing issue aren’t that different from her own. “Why don’t you tell people that you’re personally against it?” she asks, baffled. “Because that’s not what a leader does,” he replies.
The showcase of the miniseries is the sharp writing, which is exciting and politically charged without just feeling like a civics lesson. There’s high drama in the contentious city council meetings where Wasicsko and his supporters are pelted with trash and threatened by near-riotous crowds. As the issue gets ever hotter, the councilmen supporting housing desegregation receive anonymously sent bullets in the mail as a warning. Wasicsko begins carrying his own revolver and drinking his own spin on a white Russian: vodka and Maalox. The script crackles with life like any good political or criminal drama, even when the show’s events are largely confined to court rooms and city offices. Simon and his team know that car chases and shootouts aren’t the only way to provide high drama. 12 Angry Men was just a dozen men talking in a closed room, after all.
It’s worth noting that Show Me a Hero is not just The Wire 2.0, either. There are many familiar themes like the backroom political deals, racism, and civil unrest, but the miniseries stands on its own. Oscar Isaac is quietly magnetic, and you can’t take your eyes off of him when he’s on screen. He’d be reason enough to watch if this miniseries was helmed by much less capable hands. But thankfully, that is not the case. Simon, co-writer William F. Zorzi, and Paul Haggis have all done admirable work thus far, and this is looking like the comeback that Simon and Haggis both needed.
American loves a comeback story, after all. I’ll be watching.