David Simon has never made the truth easy to look at. Best known for his groundbreaking series, “The Wire,” Simon has frequently turned his eye towards the failures of societal systems and the people said institutions victimize or neglect. “Show Me a Hero” is a continuation of this kind of work as Simon and his co-writer William F. Zorzi (a former writer for “The Wire”) shine a light on the battle for public housing desegregation within the city of Yonkers, New York during the late 80’s and early 90’s.
Taking its name from the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that ominously ends in, “…and I’ll write you a tragedy,” “Show Me a Hero” attempts to develop a multi-layered ensemble of characters. In their eyes they are the heroes of their own stories, but all have struggles and flaws that foreshadow a difficult road ahead. From politicians to drug dealers, from lawyers to single mothers, each character fights to succeed in their own environment.
At the center of this cast is newly elected mayor Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac, “A Most Violent Year”). Ambitious and hardworking, the 28-year-old Wasicsko finds himself the youngest mayor of a big-city in the nation, beating a six-term incumbent played by Jim Belushi (“According to Jim”). However, this feat is mostly a footnote in the series, with Wasicsko’s campaign only taking up the first episode. Now, the young mayor finds himself faced with the challenge of fulfilling a court-ordered mandate to integrate the city’s public housing against widespread public resistance. This monster of a task swallows up any success Wasicsko has early on and begins to tear at the man. Wasicsko isn’t a crusader — he actually disagrees with the integration plan — but he’s doing what he thinks is best for his city despite the potential political suicide. Isaac continues to prove himself a dominating screen presence, playing Wasicsko with quiet determination and subtle heartbreak as he struggles along a road that is increasingly lonely.
But Simon and Zorzi emphasize that such a road needs to be traveled by turning the camera, under the direction of Paul Haggis (“Crash”), towards the residents of Yonkers. Characters like Alma Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera, “The Blacklist”) and the Doreen Henderson (Natalie Paul, “Boardwalk Empire”) try to carve out an existence for their young families only to be constrained by the barriers of an environment that has been designed to limit opportunities. These characters add urgency to a subject that can easily become bogged down in political diatribe. However, some of these plot threads have yet to connect fully to the overarching narrative. The reason for their inclusion is readily apparent but they sometimes create a sense of disjointedness in the early episodes.
Besides the economic disparity, “Show Me a Hero,” reflects on the walls segregation forms between people. Prejudice is fostered as sympathy and understanding give way to hatred and vitriol the moment property values are threatened. Perhaps this is best illustrated in the scenes involving Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener, “Captain Phillips”). Dorman, a middle-aged white woman, is against housing integration, saying, “Those people don’t want what we want.” This callous disregard for a whole group of people as a threatening other displays the worst failures of the Yonkers political system and, in many ways, modern America as a whole. It’s easy to reduce a person to a simple enemy or threat and it’s difficult to stand against the majority. So when Dorman calls Wasicsko’s office, she’s caught off guard when the mayor takes time to talk to her personally. She hears his thoughts on the matter and asks, “Well why can’t you say that it’s wrong? At least let the people know that.” To which Wasicsko replies, “Because that’s not what a leader is supposed to do. A leader is supposed to lead, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”