David Simon doesn’t make it easy. The creator of The Wire — now generally recognized as the greatest TV drama of all time — appears to relish his self-appointed role as the brilliant, bitter troll camped out beneath television’s ever-expanding bridge. That’s Simon, harrumphing loudly about the recap-and-binge culture that has posthumously made the uncompromising The Wire popular in a way it never was in its own time. (And don’t even get him started on fun, fan-propelled character brackets.) He was responsible for the grim boot camp that was Generation Kill, and that was him, too, loving the great city of New Orleans so fiercely that his embrace nearly smothered it. When Simon joined Twitter — grudgingly! — he made sure to put the word “despair” in his handle. When he spoke to Grantland in January from the set of his latest HBO project, he more or less shrugged at the prospect of ever getting more than a niche, respectful audience. As he told Amos Barshad then, “I don’t believe anyone’s going to watch this.”
He’s wrong about that. Show Me a Hero, a six-hour miniseries that HBO will run across three successive Sundays (the first two hours premiere this weekend), is inarguably Simonesque. Cowritten with Wire vet Bill Zorzi, the series is complicated, expansive, and profoundly unsentimental. Its subject matter — public housing in the New York city of Yonkers — is uncommercial to an almost absurd degree. (Networks these days demand noisy premises and, literally, sex in the first five pages of a pilot script. The only banging in Show Me a Hero involves a gavel.) But it is also brilliantly, vibrantly alive in a way almost no television is. Despite its title,1 there are no actual heroes in the series: just a collection of flawed, full-blooded human beings trying their best under trying circumstances. With Oscar Isaac in the lead as embattled Yonkers Mayor Nick Wasicsko, it’s anchored by one of the best star turns on TV in recent memory. Unlike Simon’s last two projects, Show Me a Hero is as entertaining as it is powerful. It’s going to win awards. Sorry, David. But I also have a feeling that people are going to watch it — and hopefully a great many of them.
Maybe “despite” isn’t the word. The title comes from an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that reads, in full, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” Watch all six episodes and you can safely say mission accomplished.
Look, it’s easy to snark about Simon’s recalcitrance, his refusal to play the game, his insistence on being the underdog even though he’s been bankrolled for years now by the most profligate cable channel on earth. I’ve certainly done it. Maybe you have too. But this is the abashed humor of a person lounging poolside when someone else is still busy hammering nails. In interviews, Simon often comes across as a unique, occasionally aggravating mix of self-righteous and self-effacing. But Show Me a Hero is an important reminder that there are real virtues to being a lonely needle in our soft cultural haystack. While everyone else is breaking their backs trying to make viewers comfortable, Simon is unwavering in his mission to make us pay attention. You’re always going to notice the prick right before the medicine goes in.
Show Me a Hero, based on a 1999 nonfiction book of the same name, picks up many of the themes favored by Simon throughout his television and journalistic careers: urban blight, institutional rot, the crippling disconnect between public policy and private lives. But above all, it is about something essential to the American dream: the right to a home of one’s own. In 1985, federal Judge Leonard Sand (played in the series by Bob Balaban) ruled that Yonkers, a city of 200,000 just up the river from Manhattan, had “illegally and intentionally” segregated the city’s schools and housing along racial lines. As part of an earlier settlement with the NAACP, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had agreed to build 200 units of public housing in the predominantly white east side of town. By 1987, when the series begins, the refusal of the local government — led by backslapping six-term Mayor Angelo Martinelli (Jim Belushi) — to use that federal money for its intended purpose has frustrated NAACP lawyer Michael Sussman (a charmingly nebbishy turn from The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal), vexed city planner Oscar Newman (Peter Riegert), and enraged Judge Sand, who threatens crippling fines against the city unless it complies and begins construction.
Into this simmering pot steps 28-year-old Councilman Wasicsko (Isaac), a former cop with an easy smile and an ambitious eye. Recruited to run on the Democratic ticket because no one else will, Wasicsko shocks the world (and maybe himself) by besting Martinelli and becoming the youngest mayor in America. But like many insurgent candidates, Wasicsko is quickly taught a hard lesson in the difference between campaigning and governing. Despite the roiling fury of the electorate — an increasingly toxic stew of fear, NIMBYism, and outright racism — the truth is that the housing matter has been settled by the courts. While his former peers on the council guzzle from the flammable pump of populism — Alfred Molina is particularly good as Hank Spallone, a toothpick-chewing grandstander who gains favor via dog whistle fearmongering — Wasicsko is forced to reckon with reality. The housing will happen, one way or another, and only when it does can real governance begin. Though he was swept into office by an angry electorate desperate to stop the construction, Wasicsko must risk every drop of political capital he has in order to see it succeed. Like many enablers of change throughout American history, he’s not a dreamer — he’s just also not a dummy.
As Wasicsko, Isaac is extraordinary. From his first appearance, chugging Maalox in the front seat of his boxy sedan, to his tragic last — resist the urge to Google for spoilers — he plays the entirety of the man, not merely the emotions of the moment. Thanks to Isaac’s precision, Wasicsko’s prodigious skills are inseparable from his flaws: His devotion is the B side to his neediness; the fire in his belly threatens to consume him from within. With its beepers and pantsuits, Show Me a Hero is a period piece, but Isaac is himself a period performer, a walking throwback to a time when twitchy character actors arrived packing the charisma of a movie star. (I’m not saying Isaac is Pacino, but he certainly played him in 2014’s A Most Violent Year.) No disrespect to the dozens of brilliant actors Simon has worked with over the years — some of whom, like Michael Potts and Clarke Peters, appear here — but he’s never had a leading man quite like this.
Isaac’s gravity frees Simon and Zorzi to delicately curate all the people and stories caught in Wasicsko’s orbit, from his colleagues at City Hall (including Winona Ryder as an elected-official-slash-drinking-buddy and Carla Quevedo as Nay, a sweetly supportive secretary who eventually becomes Wasicsko’s wife) to those most affected by the housing fight. Though their stories appear disparate at first, Ilfenesh Hadera’s Carmen, an overwhelmed single mother; LaTanya Richardson Jackson’s Norma, a nurse slowly losing her sight; and especially Natalie Paul’s Doreen, a young woman caught between responsibility and temptation, are the blood and sinew to Wasicsko’s backbone. They are living embodiments of the faceless statistics that litter the pages of well-meaning federal studies, race-baiting political pamphlets, and, yes, blinkered conventional drama scripts. Here they are characters, not caricatures, and they stand as proof of what Simon does best: giving dignity to those not often granted it by our media, in fiction or otherwise.
In lesser hands, Show Me a Hero would be a fairy tale about Wasicsko’s epic triumph. (Yes, that’s Crash auteur Paul Haggis behind the camera — but put your mind at ease. His work throughout is subtle, curious, and altogether excellent.) Thankfully, David Simon dramas, like history itself, are rarely so tidy. The series begins with a whoosh of backroom politicking and clearly delineated boundaries between right and wrong — all of it soundtracked by jaunty cuts from the blue-jeans-and-baseball section of the Bruce Springsteen catalogue. But midway through, the series begins to warp and stain with the messiness of real life. Never a true believer in anything other than himself, Wasicsko wins the fight but loses his job. As the residents of the newly built public townhouses struggle to be seen as neighbors by their distrustful new community — a struggle powerfully embodied by Catherine Keener as Mary Dorman, an integration opponent who gradually switches sides — Wasicsko slowly loses his soul in the cruel judgments of elections. “You can’t confuse votes with love,” a colleague warns him, but it’s too late. By Episode 5, Wasicsko isn’t a driver of the story, he’s another of its many casualties. Politics is blood sport and he’s a walking, leaking artery.
The artfulness and empathy of Show Me a Hero would be tremendously moving in any year. But it feels particularly relevant in 2015, when the Black Lives Matter movement and the violent incidents that inspired it are dominating the headlines. Though a large number of Yonkers residents appear to use NIMBYism as cover for old-fashioned racism, Simon and Zorzi are generally respectful of all involved. Indeed, their scripts go to great pains to suggest that there is something inviolable about the desire to consider one’s house a castle, built to defend against the chaos and uncertainty of the wider world. Keener’s Mary isn’t a hateful person. But what shocks her into action is the suggestion that someone else’s culture and experience might be unwelcomely poked into her own. This struck me as the inverse of The Wire’s unforgettable opening quote about letting everyone play the game: “Got to. This [is] America, man.” Well, what could be more American than the right to take your ball and go home?
But ignorance of the world’s systemic unfairness isn’t a right, it’s a privilege, and an extreme one at that. With great generosity and skill, Show Me a Hero illuminates how, in our increasingly urban future, responsibility doesn’t begin or end at the ballot box. It, like nearly everything else worth mentioning, begins at home. Show Me a Hero is set during the dawn of “broken windows” policing. Yet the argument it makes is the opposite: It is about the opening of doors.