All episodes were made available prior to broadcast.
Politics are all over the small screen these days, from Netflix’s dour, glowering House of Cards to CBS’ potential-packed Madam Secretary. And given how maddening it is to observe the actual state of affairs across the American political landscape these days, with backwards politicians defending prejudiced institutions as they claim to fight for a better future, and civilians taking to the streets to protest police brutality on a national level (to name two of countless aggravations), it makes sense that television is responding in kind – with searing, heartbreaking tales of a broken system that batters and brutalizes those who strive to fix it.
HBO’s Show Me A Hero, a six-part miniseries that will unspool over three consecutive weekends, is one such story (the title comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s oft-quoted witticism, “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy,” and it fits). Unlike creator David Simon’s last sprawling American saga, seminal HBO series The Wire, the based-on-a-true-story show has not a vast company of nuanced players but one clear, beating heart: wet-behind-the-ears but idealistic politician Nick Wasiczko (Oscar Isaac, brilliant), who in 1987 became the youngest mayor in America, beating incumbent Angelo Martinelli (Jim Belushi) to take over the mayoral office in Yonkers, NY, a bitterly divided city a stone’s throw from Manhattan.
Wasiczko ran on the promise of appealing a court order to build affordable housing, intended mostly for civilians of color, in predominantly white neighborhoods, which was passed down as America struggled to desegregate in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement. White home-owners were angered by the order, so much so that they kicked Martinelli to the curb when Wasiczko vowed that he, not the jaundiced vet, would be able to get the job done. As soon as he took office, though, Wasiczko realized that resisting desegregation would bankrupt the city – and found himself the target of the taxpayers’ ire.
Show Me A Hero dives headfirst into thorny issues of racism, class disparity, the generation gap and political posturing with gusto, giving this multi-faceted, contentious piece of history the in-depth treatment it deserves. Wasiczko is the show’s center, especially because Isaac does his best work since Inside Llewyn Davis bringing the man’s shades of vice and virtue to light, but we also see the impact of the housing developments on individuals as varied as an angry homeowner (Catherine Keener), a blind woman living in the projects (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) and a hard-working single mother from the Dominican Republic (Ilfenesh Hadera). Over the course of six episodes, Show Me A Hero realizes these individuals as fully formed human beings with strengths and weaknesses all their own.
That means we grow to love each and every one of them. Simon’s characters leap off the screen, and by the end of Show Me A Hero‘s six hours, we feel like we’ve known these people, and their struggles, for years. None are better than Isaac, who will certainly be rewarded with all manner of awards attention, but there’s not a weak link in sight.
The immediate question you’re asking may be this: wait, is Show Me A Hero basically a six-hour movie about politicians in turmoil over government-mandated housing units? Yes, it is… and it’s superb. Though that premise may seem dry, the series is anything but, utilizing a cadre of excellent performances, awards-caliber writing by Simon and intimate direction by Crash helmer Paul Haggis to ensure that, while occasionally slow, the show is never less than spellbinding. Every moment compels, and every scene will leave you thinking.
Intriguingly, given the slight pessimism that earmarked Simon and Haggis’ last works, Show Me A Hero not only tackles frustrations with governments but has something good to say about it. Change is hard – it’s tempestuous, divisive and protracted enough to consume lives. But in the end, when people fight for the common good, they can dig in their heels and actually make progress. And in a nice change of pace for a political drama that tackles government-abetted racism, the show finds its politicians slowly and imperfectly doing right by people of color.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Show Me A Hero will go down as one of the finest small-screen accomplishments of the year. If it were a theatrical release, it would win Oscars. The show is alive to nuance and character, vividly captured and strikingly well-written. It takes a complicated slice of American history and does it justice, shaping powerful insights about the knotted intricacy of government and the basic building blocks of compromise and confrontation that human society is built upon. Simon is a writer by name, a political activist in tone and a journalist at heart – and that mixture manifests itself beautifully in this series. It’s far from unbiased, and the white homeowners perhaps aren’t as complexly written as the more imperilled Yonkers residents, but the show feels vital and informative in the manner of all truly great pieces of reporting.
And like the best of Simon and Haggis’ past projects, Show Me A Hero‘s themes still reverberate loudly into the modern era. With racial tensions erupting into protest around the country, and people questioning who their elected officials (and, more worryingly, some of the individuals lobbying for seats of power) really represent, the series’ timing is opportune, and its messages actually hold that rarest and most valuable of ideas: that hope and integrity, as threadbare and hard-worn as they may be, can still move mountains.
Show Me A Hero will go down as the finest small-screen accomplishment of the year. Brilliantly written, impeccably crafted and remarkably insightful, it's a nearly flawless illustration of the best television has to offer.