Anyone coming to HBO’s latest docudrama miniseries Show Me a Hero from writer David Simon’s iconic crime series The Wire has a lot to be excited about. Not only does Show Me a Hero deal with the same type of intricate institutional power struggles of city government — this time in 1987 in Yonkers, NY, where a battle over the desegregation of low-income housing is waged with newly elected mayor Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) caught in the crossfire — but it does it with the kind of nuanced, ensemble-driven, character-based stories that made The Wire one of the most acclaimed television series of all time.
“Part One” introduces these familiar devices gracefully. Nick first appears as an upstart city councilman looking to capitalize on the incumbent mayor’s (Jim Belushi) weakness in the housing debacle, despite very little separating them politically. Essentially, the residents of white neighborhoods fiercely oppose a federal court order forcing the city council to place 200 units of low-income housing in their backyards; the mayor opposes an appeal to the court’s decision, but Nick supports it, and that’s just enough to get him voted in.
At the same time, we’re introduced to a number of unique characters in various settings, from the projects to the mayor’s office to the suburbs — all a small part of the patchwork of Yonkers’ identity and the housing crisis itself. It’s not quite as elegantly structured as The Wire (a romance between Nick and the vice mayor’s secretary, played by Carla Quevedo, feels particularly rushed), but it does hit all the right notes, especially once the secondary characters are given the screen time to really shine in “Part Two”.
Perhaps the greatest point of departure for Simon’s latest project is its scope. While its narrative shows an equivalent level of ambition to the writer’s monolithic opus, Show Me a Hero deals with a specific issue of local importance rather than the grand swath of city-wide racial, social, and political issues explored in The Wire. The relationship between the governmental institutions and the citizens they serve is far more intimate as a result. Angry citizens approach elected officials directly, in court and in council meetings, to voice their opinions; in “Part Two”, a disgruntled voter (Mary Dorman, played by Catherine Keener) phones Nick directly to contest his support for the housing project. The lines of accountability are far shorter than in the tangled, complex anatomy of urban policing.
But of course, not everyone is content to participate in the system, and justifiably so. When lawyer Michael Sussman (Jon Bernthal) makes an appeal to the executive director of the NAACP to continue to fight the Yonkers city council on housing, he replies simply, “I’m just tired.” He’s fatigued with a political system that has never worked for him. Minority voters are similarly apathetic when Nick first starts handing out flyers promoting his candidacy for mayor.
This is the basis for the handful of minor characters that actually live in the low-income areas of Yonkers: they exist outside of the system, and have no way of being heard within it. They suffer disabilities (asthma, diabetes), economic woes, and struggle through the drug game — the type of people that should be helped by the housing legislation — but they have neither the will nor a way to participate in the political realm the way that the angry, vengeful white voters do. They must focus on their immediate daily needs, and they’re ignored as a result. In these first two episodes, the housing proposal is never discussed in the court or the within the council as an aid to poor and disadvantaged families — only in the vague, distant terms of being “lawful”, a subtle but revealing example of the disconnect between the government and its citizens.
Because of this, one has to assume that the title of the miniseries is at least partially ironic. Heroes don’t really exist in politics. Even the superstars of American history (Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy) were divisive in either their time or in ours. All political victories lose the nuance of context and become straightforwardly mythical in hindsight. Nick Wasicsko is no hero, either. He’s awkward, naive, and timid — the very first scene shows him throwing up under pressure. He’s one of the people Michael Sussman talks about when he says city councilmen only care about being re-elected. Crucially, he’s also an idealist (“It’s always better to lose big than to lose small,” he says), someone who believes in those American myths: he’s a romantic, speaks of childhood dreams of becoming mayor, and plays the music of Bruce Springsteen — an icon of blue-collar Americana — so often that his friends mock him for it.
But his election is a sham in the sense that he was only voted in by spite, the result of voters subscribing to the ever-popular “lesser of two evils” style of American politics. He’s forced for the first time to come to terms with the disparity between his idealism and the complications of reality during his first time sitting in the mayoral office when he learns that the housing appeal was rejected and he will immediately have to comply with the very federal ruling that he was voted in to defy. Right away he tries to rationalize it, knowing full well that the people who voted him in on the crux of a single issue — an issue he knowingly placed himself on the wrong side of — did so on a foundation of irrationality: “They can’t blame me, right?” “Part Two” answers this question with a hearty laugh.
Not only does Nick have to learn on the fly how to navigate the complicated web of institutional responsibility, ambition, and obligation that comes from public politics, but he has to do it in the midst of mass public outcry from voters who see him as a sell-out. Very few characters on The Wire were ever naive enough to believe that they could single-handedly upend the deep roots of a long corrupted system, and the ones that did always paid for it. In contrast, Nick tries to play the game and exploit the system in “Part One”, all against his better judgment, and he eventually has to answer for that. He has the choice to either feed empty gestures to his constituents or the unpopular decision to make the “right” choice and be held accountable.
Either way, the city divides. Regardless of intentions or expectations, there truly are no heroes in the political system. Nick is wiser than he knows when in “Part Two” he asks, “Nobody gets out clean, do they?”
Like The Wire before it, Show Me a Hero reveals the complicated underbelly of American politics, relevant in today’s divisive political climate more than ever. Politicians play games (“It hurts to lose,” says city councilwoman Vinni Restiano [Winona Ryder] after she’s removed from her position) to the devastating detriment of those who are consistently ignored: the poor, the disabled, the disillusioned. These worlds exist separately despite the fact that they’re ideally supposed to inform one another.
“Part One” and “Part Two” portray Nick Wasicsko as a naïve official voted in by mistake, someone who can’t represent his constituents out of legal (and perhaps moral) responsibility. The loudest voters essentially hold his and the rest of the city councilmen’s careers hostage. Some choose to pander to them for a chance at re-election next term, and some choose to be compliant with the courts. Either way, it reveals the pettiness and puerility inherent in playing politics. Worst of all, the politicians think they’re the biggest losers in all of it, once again forgetting that the ones at the bottom — the institutionally ignored — have to unwittingly pick up the slack once they’re gone.
Perhaps a vaguely defined “hero” can emerge from the situation, but damage will always be done; no one leaves the game of politics unscathed. Nick Wasicsko couldn’t even jump in without sustaining a few deep cuts and bruises.