'Show Me a Hero': TV Review

Show Me A Hero Oscar Isaac Still - H 2015
Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Show Me A Hero Oscar Isaac Still - H 2015

A smart, gripping take on race and class in America.

Oscar Isaac stars as a New York politician who gets saddled with a divisive housing project in David Simon's new miniseries for HBO.

When David Simon told HBO executives about his storyline for the second season of the acclaimed series The Wire — the whole of which would eventually go down as arguably the greatest drama on television — they were understandably taken aback. The first season, complicated as it might have been, essentially was a look at the duality and similarity between the infrastructures of the Baltimore police department and a gang selling drugs out of the local projects.

Ah, but the plan for season two was to shake things up, taking everything from the first season and making it the "B" storyline while instead highlighting "the decline of the working class in American cities, focusing on the Baltimore waterfront and its unions."

Which is the perfect way to say that Simon never in his life made anything easy for television executives and, by extension, viewers. The man digs into complex issues and refuses to take shortcuts, which is probably why his eyes lit up at the idea of taking non-fiction book, "Show Me A Hero" by writer Lisa Belkin — about a public-housing policy dispute in Yonkers, New York, that divided a city along class lines and destroyed the career of an idealistic mid-sized city mayor — and making it into a miniseries.

Simon doesn't recoil from what others might consider unsexy material.

And while it might seem that Show Me A Hero (taken from the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy") has a distinct "eat your vegetables" aroma to it, what becomes apparent when you settle down to watch is the unmistakable lure of being hooked by the storytelling and the first-class acting. This is a miniseries, rolled out in double episodes on three consecutive Sundays, that not only rewards viewers for the time they invest, but also gives them a glimpse of what could earn a very generous haul of Emmy nominations next year.

Written by Simon and long-time Wire contributor William F. Zorzi, Hero is a true, era-specific look at not only race and class in America but the far more universal themes of home and family — of the American ideal of wanting a place of your own to settle down in.

The six-part miniseries takes Belkin's book and brings it achingly to life. Idealistic political wonk Nick Wasicsko (a superb, award-worthy Oscar Isaac) is a newbie city councilman in Yonkers in the late 1980s — he's still living with his mother and mostly voting along with incumbent mayor Angelo Martinelli (Jim Belushi), who is likely to cruise to an easy victory. Wasicsko is urged to run against Martinelli and though he thinks it's probably too early, his ego gets the better of him and he agrees, thinking at worst he'll learn from the experience.

But as Show Me A Hero begins, tensions in the city of Yonkers bubbles beneath the surface of the show. In a lawsuit is brought by the U.S. Department of Justice and the NAACP, the city was found guilty of using federal housing funds to segregate the city (already 80 percent white) by only building housing projects "across the tracks" (in this case, on the other side of the Saw Mill River Parkway).

The story begins with an intriguing political reality. Mayor Martinelli had realized it was folly to appeal the government ruling; appealing the case would cost Yonkers tons of money for little reward. But Wasicsko voted for the appeal, and that was enough to get angry Yonkers residents on his side, allowing him to oust the mayor in the election. The appeal was rejected not long after the election, and now the newbie, idealistic Mayor Wasicsko finds himself having to bend to the decision of federal judge Leonard Sand (Bob Balaban) to build 200 units of low-income housing on the white side of Yonkers.

That, not surprisingly, is political suicide.

This is where Show Me A Hero takes off as the ultimate "be careful what you wish for" story. Wasicsko is just nerdy enough to have always wanted to be mayor, but the seat is barely warm when residents accuse of him of lying and selling out as the law forces him to put the housing in place.

He never even had a chance.

Credit Simon and Zorzi, as well as acclaimed director Paul Haggis (Crash), for finding the humanity in the situation and in the characters. Yes, racism is a major factor in the fear of white residents, but blame also extends to the failures of old-school public housing and the actions of its hopeless residents.  

Hero also succeeds, arguably, where Haggis' big-screen Crash faltered because it's not a blunt instrument about racism and its roots. Where that two-hour movie was very black-and-white with its subject, the six hours of Hero can look at the perspectives of characters like Yonkers resident Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener), who vehemently fights the new construction; project resident Norma O'Neal (LaTanya Richardson-Jackson); housing expert Oscar Newman (Peter Riegert); various city council members (including one played by Winona Ryder); and NAACP attorney Michael Sussman (Jon Bernthal of The Walking Dead), who gets a bittersweet victory (what's the point of "winning" when it means residents will be living where they are vehemently unwanted?).

Hero could have gone even deeper into the contradictory emotions caught up in its story, and in other spots it can feel a bit redundant (of course, there's really not much mystery to what will happen and what the fallout will be). But just when an episode starts to feel — even for a few minutes — like "eating your vegetables," the all-star cast and their wonderful performances or the beautifully nuanced scripts from Simon and Zorzi reset the hook.

Show Me A Hero certainly isn't sexy and, on the surface, may not seem particularly timely or urgent, but the core elements of the story are universal and the show's most impressive achievement is making them relevant and dramatic and entertaining all at the same time.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine