David Simon has admitted that he essentially tricked HBO into greenlighting “The Wire” by pitching them a cop show and only later revealing his plan to devote each season to a different area of Baltimore society. “Show Me a Hero,” the miniseries Simon authored with his longtime collaborator, Bill Zorzi, employs no such subterfuge. Based on Lisa Belkin’s nonfiction book about the battle to desegregate public housing in Yonkers, New York, it’s a story about politics in which characters figure incidentally, and not the other way around.
Over the course of six hour-long episodes, aired two at a time beginning this Sunday, “Show Me a Hero” takes us through the arduous, seven-year-long process (from 1987 to 1994) of installing and populating new public housing units in the middle-class neighborhoods on Yonkers’ largely white east side, undoing decades of deliberate segregation which clustered poor, mostly nonwhite residents in projects on the opposite side of the Saw Mill River Parkway. It’s a story whose tension comes to a head in city council meetings and court rulings, tracking the slow grind of bureaucracy as people’s lives disintegrate and are sometimes rebuilt.
Although it has a central figure in Oscar Isaac’s Nick Wasicsko, the Yonkers mayor who becomes an almost inadvertent champion of the new housing, “Hero” has no heroes, nor even villains. The faceless whites whose barely coded language explodes into outright bigotry as they fight the incursion of people whose “lifestyle” differs from their own are the bad guys, but they’re also pawns, their emotions frothed by cynical politicians whose vision goes no farther than the next election. While Isaac’s performance is magnificent, the series’ highlight is an almost unrecognizable turn by Catherine Keener as elderly resident Mary Dorman, whose racist opposition begins to soften when she gets a whiff of the opposition’s humanity.
Director Paul Haggis’ presence is largely invisible, although the homiletic tendencies of “Crash” poke through when he uses a split lens to literally shove the 911 messages on Nick’s beeper in the audience’s face. But he also can’t overcome the weaknesses in Simon and Zorzi’s script, which takes on so many characters that they’re all reduced to representative ciphers. You can’t tell the players without a scorecard, and the series doesn’t provide one. That’s especially true of the attempt to interweave the stories of “ordinary” people — i.e. non-political actors — with those of city government workers and political activists. Ilfenesh Hadera’s Alma, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who struggles to hold onto custody of her children, floats in and out of the story as if the series has to be reminded to keep checking in on her, and Natalie Paul’s Doreen, to quote the Village Voice’s Inkoo Kang, “sets some kind of record for going from newlywed to widow to drug addict to community leader.”
Critics are at pains to reassure viewers that a six-hour miniseries about the workings of city government isn’t as dull as it sounds, and it isn’t, largely because of solid casting and sometimes spectacular performances. There’s an earned fatalism to the way Simon and Zorzi, both former journalists, chart the inevitable corruption of good intentions, and a more surprising authenticity in the way that some characters find themselves rising to the occasion — not as heroes, but as people. The book’s title comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.” But its ultimate lesson — which you’ll already surmise if you know the characters’ real-life histories — is that heroes aren’t what need.
“Show Me a Hero” premieres Aug. 16 at 8 p.m. on HBO.
Reviews of “Show Me a Hero”
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter
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. “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.
James Poniewozik, Time
“Show Me a Hero” is to Simon’s “The Wire” as “The Silmarillion” is to “The Lord of the Rings”: pure uncut wonkery, without the genre trappings of a cop story. This is a show that will build a scene around housing expert Oscar Newman (Peter Riegert), explaining his “defensible space” theory — that small, discrete homes, like the planned townhouses, promote a sense of investment–and actually knows how to dramatize it. The themes are a natural evolution of Simon’s urban oeuvre (also including “The Corner” and “Tremé”) which contrasts personal stories with the greater power of impersonal forces.
Andy Greenwald, Grantland
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 there is something inviolable about the desire to consider one’s house as a castle, built to defend against the chaos and uncertainty of the wider world.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
Simons’s gifts as an entertainer, and those of his collaborators — co-writer William F. Zorzi, director Paul Haggis, and, especially, star Oscar Isaac — are put to an extreme test with “Show Me a Hero.” It’s essentially a six-hour lecture on zoning regulations, municipal codes, and why integration remained such a thorny issue long after the civil rights era of the ’60s. But if it’s a lecture, it’s an engaging, emotional, and surprisingly light on its feet one.
Inkoo Kang, Village Voice
Simon and Zorzi’s script is unrelentingly intelligent, even when the drama is flabby, as when entire scenes are devoted to elucidating why the phrase “housing project” is offensive to residents, or when city planner Oscar Newman (Peter Riegert) explains why single-family homes are preferable to towers. Roiling underneath the sedate drama lies a blood-boiling, incontrovertible fact: The battle to keep Yonkers segregated is just one of the many times when the tyranny of the masses was used to stomp on the already downtrodden.
Stephen Marche, Esquire
David Simon always combined high-jeopardy narratives and unforgettable characters with lessons in civic government. This time, he has forgotten to give the sugar of story and character with the medicine of political activism. But it’s also unclear what the political lesson of “Show Me a Hero” is. Wasicsko makes some good decisions and he makes some bad decisions, and he has guts and he’s a decent guy, but he also gets carried away by his vanity and his hunger for power. Yet none of it adds up to the promise of the title, which is taken from an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.” The larger point of “Show Me a Hero” appears to be that city government is grueling. Sometimes television can be, too.
Brian Lowry, Variety
A timely, nuanced look at class and race through the prism of events that transpired more than a quarter-century ago, “Show Me a Hero” is a sobering, spare and meticulously crafted HBO miniseries. Although the subject matter — six hours devoted to the battle over public housing in Yonkers, N.Y. — won’t be for everyone, David Simon’s productions seldom are. Nevertheless, the pervasive quality and ambition, including Oscar Isaac’s central performance, rubs off on the pay network in a flattering way, feeling very much of a piece with the third season of “The Wire” in capturing the dysfunction of municipal politics.
Kevin Jagernauth, The Playlist
Where Simon and co. excel in the writing of “Show Me a Hero” is wiping away any unrealistic illusion that those who fill low-income housing are always well-meaning people caught up in a system that keeps them down. Simon doesn’t go for those simplicities — these are people, and some of them are good and ambitious, while others are given to their worst impulses. In short, they’re human; flawed, but no less worthy of dignity.
Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly
Simon’s not really writing a tragedy either. He always makes it clear that one person’s tragedy is another’s victory, especially when it comes to politics. Watching a drama about a public-housing debate might sound boring until you see the incredibly suspenseful scenes where Wasicsko goes head-to-head with furious council members and a stone-faced judge, each threatening to bankrupt the city or throw someone in jail, as control swings wildly from one to another. The courtroom scenes are riveting, and so is Isaac’s emotional performance. Wasicsko is a man obsessed with power and ego, but he’s driven by the same heartfelt, hopeful belief as this thoughtful drama: Everyone deserves a place to call home.
Mike Hale, New York Times
What Mr. Simon and his “Wire” collaborator William F. Zorzi have written, and Paul Haggis (“Crash”) has directed, is many things: meticulously and cleverly assembled, wonderfully coherent, often moving and funny, painstaking in its evocation of a midsize, tired city in the late 1980s and early ’90s…. What “Show Me a Hero” doesn’t have, in the end, is the force of real tragedy. Like all of Mr. Simon’s work, it’s notable for its journalistic rigor, its resistance to sentimentalism and sensation and its top-to-bottom good casting. The depiction of Wasicsko’s fight to get Yonkers to abide by a federal judge’s desegregation order, despite the vicious opposition of the city’s white majority and the cowardice of his fellow politicians, is crisp and absorbing. In its later episodes, as the first black and Latino residents move into their new homes in formerly all-white neighborhoods of east Yonkers, it has a real (if modest) emotional punch. But, ultimately, it’s a show to be admired, not loved.