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Review: ‘Show Me a Hero’ Parts 1 and 2 Masterfully Deliver a (Surprisingly) Gripping Tale

Review: 'Show Me a Hero' Parts 1 and 2 Masterfully Deliver a (Surprisingly) Gripping Tale

First Item of Business

What settles into your bones after two hours of “Show Me a Hero” is the shock and awe factor. We, as viewers, are likely to feel as overwhelmed as poor Nic Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), the newly-elected mayor inheriting an issue that drove his predecessor out of office. Why? Whether you want to know why a modern audience would be as shocked as the man getting bullets mailed to him, or why the old mayor was voted out of office to begin with, the power of the people is your answer. Officially, the not-so-good people of Yonkers, NY were so desperate to elect anyone but ex-Mayor Angelo Martinelli (Jim Belushi), they voted in a 28-year-old first term councilman. Unofficially, these people have been driven batshit crazy by a fear of the unknown (read: inherent racism) and a sense of entitlement regarding their own “hard-earned” status (read: greed). 

That we can feel and fear their vehemency after only two hours is a credit to writers David Simon and William F. Zorzi (not to mention author Lisa Belkin, who wrote the nonfiction book this miniseries is based on) as well as the director, two-time Oscar-winner Paul Haggis. “Show Me a Hero” has almost nothing sexy going for it on paper. Repetitious scenes in city council halls and courtrooms do not typically make for pulse-pounding TV. A sprawling cast with as many familiar faces as unfamiliar ones shouldn’t help the matter, either, especially when viewers are asked to remember a plethora of new names for the actors they already recognize.

Yet what’s truly shocking about the first two episodes is how much each moment grips you. From Nick passing out flyers to reluctant voters to a struggling single mother trying to make her way in America, each small scene builds to something bigger. Nick’s early campaign lull pays off later when he’s suddenly flush with fans, showing how quickly the tides can turn when something as heated as public housing comes up during an election. Everything single mother Alma Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera) has to deal with leads to her leaving her children in the Dominican Republic to try to better support them from Yonkers, NY. The heartbreak is earned not only by the time devoted to establishing it, but by the careful pacing of the show overall. In short, while it’s certainly shocking to see events unfold as they have so far, what leaves us in awe is that the miniseries is as arresting as its content is relevant.

Proclamation

Let’s hear it for the casting director. Alexa L. Fogel, who’s worked on such acclaimed series as “The Wire” and “True Detective” (Season 1), has absolutely nailed it thus far into “Show Me a Hero,” with no reason to suspect a dip in placement from here on out. Looking past landing Oscar Isaac in the title role he so definitely deserves, Fogel dug deep to find gems like Ilfenesh Hadera, as the single mother trying to make it in America, and LaTanya Richardson Jackson as Norma O’Neal, a nurse losing her eyesight to diabetes.

On top of that, it’s not just who Fogel found but where she placed them. Alfred Molina could have owned the role of a wise, multi-term mayor who’s ousted by forces beyond his control. Audiences may have even felt more sympathy for the respected character actor than Jim Belushi, who many high-minded TV fans look down upon as the guy from “According to Jim.” Just as easy to imagine is Belushi as an arrogant vice mayor set on playing to the people’s baser instincts rather than serving their better interests. Taking advantage of the audience’s predilection to root against Belushi would have been an easy sell to the writers, director and studio. Instead, Fogel saw past the easy play. She a) trusted Belushi to embody both sides of Martinelli (the man we want to lose the election, but know isn’t going down for the right reasons), and b) recognized how much more despicable Molina could make Henry Spallone through sheer, focused ferocity. So again: let’s give a tip of the cap to the casting director. 

Discussion Item

In an effort not to spoil what’s to come, I will abstain from any research into the life of the real Mary Dorman, so lovingly embodied by Catherine Keener, and instead discuss the undeniable relevancy of her actions so far. That’s not to say I know what’s coming: I do not, though it seems somewhat obvious her role in this story is only beginning to become clear. Dorman first appeared as an interested if mostly unobtrusive party, but she was soon swept up in the mob mentality so delicately captured by Paul Haggis’ mindfully-placed camera. Her rapidly rising anger at first felt like an access point to the rest of the rebellious citizens. We identified with her concerns, as well as her wariness to fully engage with a group sporting more than a few bad apples (placing her as the witness to Oscar Newman’s attack was quite clever).

But it was when she crossed the line that we really got to know her as more than a representative of others. First, she attacked Nick by way of his father, yelling at him from the crowd that his dad would be ashamed of him before the mayor had her quickly ejected. Not knowing the nerve she’d struck already, Dorman called the office, not expecting to hear from the mayor after a few rings. Their restrained yet honest discussion felt telling of Nick’s dwindling power in Yonkers as well as a reality check for Mary. When asked who she spoke to by her husband, was her reply — “No one, really.” — a response to the mayor’s empty title or telling of her own shame? What Dorman does next will certainly tell us more about the fateful phone call, but it’s already unforgettable as it stands.

The Boss’ Order

Part 1 Songs:
“Gave It A Name” (opening)
“Hungry Heart” (jukebox theme song)
“Ramrod” (yard signs/driving date)

Part 2 Songs:
“All That Heaven Will Allow” (moving in together)

As an avid fan of the Boss since birth and an obvious disciple of “The Wire” as a TV critic, I can’t tell you how excited I was to hear my two loves would be coming together in David Simon’s latest offering. Featuring 12 songs spread throughout the miniseries’ six episodes, “Show Me a Hero” should be able to take full advantage of a diverse catalogue of Bruce Springsteen’s blue collar anthems, odes and lullabies. 

“Part 1” gave us our most telling choices, as the series opened with a full-length incorporation of “Gave It a Name” — a rare track from Springsteen’s compilation album, “Tracks,” finally exposed to the wider audience it deserves — as well as Nick’s self-proclaimed “theme song” in “Hungry Heart.” Like many of Springsteen’s songs, “Hungry Heart” was largely misinterpreted during the ’80s. Though peppy and catchy in melody, the lyrics describe a man who’s accepted his doomed fate to repeat the mistakes of the past, all so he can feel loved even if it’s an empty gesture.

Nick using this as his own personal theme song is even more depressing than Reagan repurposing “Born in the U.S.A.” as his official campaign music. Considering how the death of Nick’s father clearly damaged the new mayor’s psyche, one would think he’d be keen to avoid abandoning his own family in order to be loved by the masses. His refusal to come to terms with the enormity of his situation after being elected was gravely conveyed in the final scene of Part 1 — “They can’t blame you.” “Right?” — and his continued fight against mirroring the downfall of his predecessor is equal parts naiveté and denial. He cannot accept his fate, for to do so would be letting down not only his family, but his city, and then no one is left to love him.

So what should he do? “All That Heaven Will Allow,” the song that played as Nick and Nay Noe settled into their new apartment, may hold some answers. Though primarily about how love can help you overcome other issues in your life, the final verse holds some good advice for Young Nick: “Now some may wanna die young, man / Young and gloriously / Get it straight now, mister / Hey buddy that ain’t me / ‘Cause I got something on my mind / That sets me straight and walkin’ proud / And I want all the time / All that heaven will allow”. Time is exactly what Nick needs to overcome this political hurdle — be it time to enact the court’s orders or the experience needed to calm down a restless city — but he’d also better stay “straight and walkin’ proud” if he hopes to survive the hoards of narrow-minded citizens wanting his head on a spike. 

Roll Call Vote: 

On the resolution to continue watching, discussing and learning from “Show Me a Hero” for the next two weeks, including but not limited to the episodes provided by HBO, this forum at Indiewire (i.e. the review and ensuing comments section) and listening to the entirety of Bruce Springsteen’s flawless music library:

Managing Editor Kate Erbland: Aye, with an additional personal resolution to only listen to Bruce on vinyl. Vintage, baby.

TV Editor Liz Shannon Miller: Aye, with the acknowledgment that I needed to look up which songs were actually Bruce songs. (Though I still know enough about Bruce to have had a fight with Paul Haggis about “Secret Garden” being from 1995. That’s a thing that actually happened.)

TV Critic Ben Travers: Aye, and as I have written too many words already on the subject, I will stop right now.

Editorial Assistant Zack Sharf: Aye, with an additional personal resolution that I will ALWAYS listen to the Jersey god known as BRUCE.

Multimedia Editor Jon “Justice” Fusco: Aye. Justice demands it be so.

Part I Grade: A-

Part II Grade: A

READ MORE: ‘Show Me A Hero’: David Simon and Paul Haggis Might Have Made This Year’s Most Important Miniseries

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