September 21, 2015

Show Me A Hero: An Understated Treasure

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The conventional wisdom about David Simon, the creator of The Wire (yes it really is the greatest show of all time as many people annoyingly but correctly remind you), Treme and Generation Kill is that he is a pessimist: that his shows are about the inability of society to resolve its ills.

And while this is true to some extent, it does not paint the full picture of his work. Simon’s shows can be optimistic about people — ordinary people just trying to get by and do the right thing. Rather, he seems to be deeply pessimistic about human institutions. These institutions, whether they be government bureaucracies, drug gangs or entire cities, are unable to reform themselves, and often in their structure, prevent individuals from doing the right thing. The people of western Baltimore are ruined by drug wars; the enthusiastic citizens who love New Orleans cannot get a simple loan to repair their home from Katrina damage; the mostly virtuous soldiers of Operation Iraqi Freedom have to follow the morally and practically disastrous policies of the Rumsfeld military administration. Thus, it is pattern-breaking but also refreshing that Simon’s new mini-series, Show Me a Hero, is about a rare case where government, despite dragging its heels, ultimately does the right thing and contributes to the collective good.

Show Me a Hero takes place in late 1980s-early 1990s Yonkers (just up the river from Manhattan) when a federal judge orders that the city build 200 affordable housing units in the well-off and white, east side of Yonkers.

The ostensible protagonist of the series, Mayor Nick Wasicsko, played by the wonderful and understated Oscar Isaac, faces severe opposition from many of the East siders as he has no choice but to enforce the law, lest the city be fined into bankruptcy for its refusal to comply with the court order. The title of the show refers to the F.Scott Fitzgerald quote, “show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” And there certainly is a tragedy by the end of the show (I would avoid Googling the real story or any of the key players) and the “hero” aspect is a little less clear.

Wasicsko gets elected as mayor in the first place by opposing the affordable housing orders, and only changes his mind when he realizes that he simply has to follow the law. However, as the opposition mounts and the racial ugliness rears its head, Wasicsko begins to realize he is on the right side of history. Similarly, in a great arc, Mary Dormer (Catherine Keener), begins as a East Side resident virulently asserting ‘not in my backyard,’ but has to reevaluate her stance when she realizes that the building of the units is an inevitability. Therefore, the show correctly eschews creating ‘white knight’ characters, and more properly shows how the advances of history often involve dragging the reluctant along until they see the better angels of their nature.

While I loved Show Me a Hero, the first two hours of the show (it is a total of six) are a bit of a slog. The sessions in the council chamber with Wasicsko are a bit too typical for what you usually see in those types of scenes (fast-talking, a little too cynical for its own good, etc). In addition, the show spends the majority of its time with various residents of the public housing projects who will possibly move to the new units being built. In the first two installments, their stories are almost too understated to fully enjoy. A single mother moves back to the United States while her kids are in the Dominican Republic so she can make more money; a pregnant teenager struggles with her circumstances; a single mother tries to refuse the temptation of the drug use prevalent in her community.

While I usually find distasteful the thinking that one ought to enjoy boring art for its intrinsic value, by the end of Show Me A Hero, the purpose to the understated nature of these stories became clear. After all, what could be more basic yet vital than a decent home to live in? In fact, the power of these stories becomes so clear that in the last chapter that I wished the plot had abandoned the stories of Wasicsko and his fellow politicians so the entire episode could be devoted to which of the characters would win the housing lottery to move into the new units. I won’t spoil their fates, but I will just say that the show works its magic such that the conclusions to their tales left me in tears.

It is surprising that a series about housing policy could be so compelling. Many people may complain that the show lectures its viewers, and that these stories are making the audience “eat their vegetables,” but I would have to disagree with any person who claimed the show wasn’t serving those vegetables perfectly sauteed.

Jesse Weissman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].