This post was written for The Georgetown Voice. Read it there, and check out our latest work!
How does one make housing crises and City Council meetings compelling? Hiring David Simon, the mastermind behind The Wire, helps. The ratings of his shows may not break any records, but the work is nonetheless remarkable. From the mean streets of Baltimore to the disaster-ravaged wards of New Orleans and now to the courtrooms and apartments of Yonkers with Show Me a Hero, his latest project, Simon proves capable of producing powerful work by examining largely powerless people. Once again, he takes a community troubled to the point of incoherency and finds clear and concise meaning in its struggles, clear lessons to be learned before another entity suffers a similar fate.
The show, a six-part HBO miniseries based on real events, follows various individuals fighting for and against federally-mandated public housing in Yonkers, New York. Spanning from the late ‘80s into the ‘90s, it tells a story of attrition, iwn which progress arrives painfully slow—if it arrives at all. The basis of the narrative lies in a federal judge’s desegregation ruling, one that called for housing units to be built in close proximity to white middle-class neighborhoods. As a result, the political and civic landscapes became increasingly years consisted of political stalemate and racial anxiety pervading the community.
At the head of Simon’s show is Nick Wasicsko, embattled councilman and eventual mayor of Yonkers, played with a sort of doomed passion by Oscar Isaac. Isaac is well on his way to stardom, with well-received performances in Inside Llewyn Davis and Ex Machina behind him and a role in The Force Awakens lying ahead. His work in Show Me a Hero should solidify him as one of the most versatile young actors in Hollywood and could very well earn him an Emmy nomination.
He moves from twitching rage to two-faced politicking seamlessly, leaving the audience rooting for his success but scared of his self-harming potential. Wasicsko ages from his 20s to 30s over the course of the show, but Isaac makes the change feel monumental, devolving from a bright-eyed social climber into a wearied veteran of a political war, one requiring him to plunge two hands deep into the filth and greed of a broken hierarchy.
Wasicsko is a tragic figure, his story serving as one possible inspiration for the show’s title (from a F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.” He lives and dies for the chance to make a difference in his community, but even more so for the chance to be known for making a difference. Torn between bolstering his political reputation and preserving the few stable relationships remaining in his life, Wasicsko stumbles and spirals downward, drifting further and further away from the issues and titles for which he once sincerely cared.
As Wasicsko loses his pristine reputation bit by bit, so too does the character give up the spotlight, ceding center stage to individuals more directly affected by the political stalemate and social bias of the community.
Despite Isaac’s stellar performance—along with those given by Jim Belushi, Catherine Keener, and several others—the show’s greatest merit lies in its thoughtful treatment of a racially charged environment. No one moment in the series defines the social turmoil of the time. Instead, racism and prejudice linger and persist, leaving their moderate but definitive mark on each and every scene and storyline.
As he did with The Wire and Treme, Simon portrays a fractured community fraught with social and personal strife, with endless problems and haunted by their elusive solutions. Time remains for people to see Show Me a Hero online or in other forms of after-the-fact viewing, but its low ratings and lack of popularity remain disheartening.
As our nation stands at a crossroads, staring into the eyes of its own comprehensive social failures, Simon’s show fits in perfectly. The outrage of his characters permeates their every interaction, individuals fighting for themselves and watching macro-level progress escape them and their communities as a result.
Simon’s shows have never shied away from exposing bureaucracies and their inefficiencies, their prideful players allowing personal ambitions to completely envelop collective efforts at enacting meaningful change. They show government not as it should be but as it is, simply revealing the clumsiness people would rather ignore. Show Me a Hero came and went quickly, its six parts playing out rapidly over the course of three Sundays in August, so perhaps it never had the chance to make an impact on the scale of The Wire or like-minded projects. Even the current social media-driven, instant-access culture could not keep up with the efficiency of the show as it came and went. Perhaps if the show lasted for another few Sundays, or received more immediate press, viewers would have caught on to its urgent and important message. Nevertheless, it succeeds in exposing one governmental failure among the many that have plagued American towns, cities, and states in the decades following the Civil Rights Movement.
The premise and settings and brevity of the show led to its low ratings, but those numbers do not capture the brilliance of Simon and the talent of the cast he assembled. The condemnations he presents are as loud as a Yonkers City Council meeting, and far more coherent, enduring even after the city’s chaos reluctantly fades away. Show Me a Hero’s title at first sounds like a playful invitation, a harbinger of Wasicsko or another politician triumphing over the ineptitude of a flailing, depersonalizing system. By the end of Simon’s six hours, it sounds more like a desperate pleat, tinged with fading optimism but weary, echoing out from the mouths of those who need a hero most of all.