To I’m sure what must be the horror of television fans everywhere, this is the first David Simon series I’ve ever seen. Generation Kill, about the fruitless nature of war, was never on my radar when it aired, Treme was little more than a punchline blip about how many people weren’t watching it, and The Wire eats up too much time I’m not yet willing to sacrifice.
In the same vein, I’ve also never seen Paul Haggis’ Crash, which I’m sure stings far less.
So for the premiere episode of Show Me a Hero, I went in with fresh eyes. I’m not familiar with Simon’s style or tonality, so I had zero preconceptions of how the script would sound. It’s a topical issue, scary considering it was set in 1987: nearly thirty years ago. The story sets its sights on the young Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), who finds himself elected mayor in a tumultuous period for Yonkers. Ordered by the court to build low income public housing for the residents, Wasicsko is forced to uphold an unpopular decision, angering the people who voted for him as well as his fellow councilmen.
At times, Show Me a Hero treads the line of becoming a straightforward history lesson, but the creators and talent in front of and behind the camera keep it from sounding as if it were recited from a book. An adaption of Lisa Belkin’s book, the series is a surprisingly engaging and timely look at a discourse running through the average day of an individual’s life. Those opposed to the ruling say it’s because they’re worried about the quality of life going down and their property losing its value, while also turning their backs and making comments about it being religiously informed and throwing out casually racist remarks. There’s a tone deaf nature to their insults and barbs and, even scarier, and angry mob mentality when they all swarm the courtrooms during the votes.
Nick is told not to be surprised when he begins receiving death threats.
There’s a moment in the series’ opening moments when we believe we’ll spend more time with happier characters, ones who are desperately trying to do the good and right thing, passionate about their cause even when they go unheard. It’s difficult to look past the jovial atmosphere and Nick’s euphoric “I’m the fucking mayor” when he’s elected. Isaac is so instantly engaging and likable as Nick and as a performer that we want him to succeed even when he flounders or even when the odds seem stacked above him. We cherish his few moments of happiness he shares with his girlfriend Nay (Carla Quevedo).
It’s made all the more difficult when he has people such as Alfred Molina’s Henry Spallone at his throat and feeding the angry mobs pitchforks, or Catherine Keener as Mary Doorman shouting insults at him. He’s facing an uphill battle the second he takes his seat as mayor, and even his moment of ignorance, where he believes the citizens won’t blame him for the appeal against the housing not going through, is short-lived.
While we’re meeting Nick, we’re also meeting the people of the town, on the outskirts and otherwise, who too will be affected by the housing plan. Law enforcement makes them grow edgy as others are forced to commute tiresome hours to be able to provide for their families.
Show Me a Hero’s “Part One” and “Part Two” are shot beautifully, giving it the air of late 80s with ease, whether Bruce Springsteen or Whitney Houston plays at a bar, or we get a shot of a VHS sitting on the TV stand in Nick’s apartment. There’s an authenticity to the set design where nothing feels overly designed.
It’s a slow burn of a series so far, but it’s far from a bore, with moments brimming with tension once the gravity of Nick’s situation begins to weigh in. A moment where he is at the cemetery to visit his father is a stand-out, as he waits in his car, gun in hand, as another car drives up, uncertain if it is a threat.
Those tense moments are juxtaposed with the episode’s end, as Mary makes a phone call to the Mayor’s office and, surprisingly, reaches the mayor himself. They speak civilly, in a shockingly human moment for both characters, where she asks him honestly why he’s supporting the court’s ruling, and he honestly answers. He tells her, in a line-reading so packed with vulnerability by Isaac, that he promises he won’t kick her out of another town meeting.
There was not meteoric rise for Nick, he simply was in the right place in the right time and got the role and then was immediately torn down. He speaks to his confidant Vinni (Winona Ryder) after she’s been ousted from office, and she tells him that she feels as if she’s missing a part of her life, how she misses the stress; Nick must envy that want, as he has the weight of his city on his shoulders, unknowing of what’s to come, but certain that the following day will likely be another one in hell. He’s a young mayor, fighting a battle that’s been unsolved for decades in a city where racial discrimination is high and the public discourse is in need of educating. His battle isn’t just uphill, it’s nearly unbeatable.
Show Me a Hero (and I’ll write you a tragedy) is a portrait of humans at their worst, and humans doing their utmost best to stay above water. David Simon, Paul Haggis, and Oscar Isaac have a remarkable and insightful television show on their hands. Running at only six episodes, the show has quite a lot of story to unload, and it will be worth every minute.