From its first very first scene, with future mayor Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) throwing up Maalox at his father’s gravestone, Show Me a Hero isn’t a very subtle show. But then, in many ways it doesn’t need to be. Hero tells a fictionalized, though heavily researched (and far beyond the usual standard for “based on a true story adaptations”) version of events that took place in Yonkers from the late 1980s through the 1990s. During this period, a judge decreed that the obviously racist placement of public housing in the city was, well, quite obviously racist. Moreso, he made it so that the city needed to actually do something about this. Yonkers’ failure to comply with this order is the centerpiece of the series, and the city itself is just as much a character as anyone else in the show. Once Hero’s simple title sequence is out of the way we’re shown a tour of the area by helicopter, and with this the lines separating the “good” part of the city from poorer areas. Again, none of this is terribly subtle, and with only six episodes David Simon and company clearly want to get right down to business.
Unfortunately, though, the series’ short length, coupled with its monumental ambition, leads to Show Me a Hero taking shortcuts that Simon never did in The Wire or Treme. Soon, one character tells another one who many of the main characters are, and another scene lays out—less for characters within the scene than for the audience—the specificities of this housing project situation. With this, it becomes clear that despite the show’s beauty, its stunning on-location cinematography by Andrij Parekh (which offer yet another poetic take on urban landscapes from Simon), this is a theatrical show. These events may be based upon reality, but within the show it’s a heightened reality, with overheated acting and set pieces made to force emotions, rather than letting them occur naturally. In one scene, everyone in a meeting is blocked towards Wasicsko, and thus the camera, rather than each other, and we can feel the artificiality of what’s happening. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make this into a different beast altogether from Simon’s earlier work. Call this the Paul Haggis effect if you will, but it’s not a great mesh for this material. Crash may have somehow won an Oscar, but let’s not kid ourselves that it’s in any way a good movie.
While I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by the non-existent soft touch of Haggis’ directing, what’s far more surprising are the problems with the script, both on the micro and macro level. Simon likes to have large casts, showing not just the cause of problems, but also the effect. This may pay off later in the series, but here it leads to a case of the white characters having stories that feel relevant and related to each other, while the black and Dominican characters are kind of off on their own, in the same world as the rest of the cast, but only barely. Isaac’s Wasicsko is not just well performed, he’s complex and nuanced in almost every way. He’s a full fledged human of Shakespearean level depth and one of Simon’s most well-developed characters, period. Equally interesting, though not as conflicted, is Jon Bernthal’s NAACP attorney Michael Sussman, who’s the central force for good in this morality play. Alongside them, there’s a deep cast of politicians and judges and lawyers and activists, almost entirely white, who, while theatrical, at least have a sort of interiority. This half of the cast is well-written and connected with each other, and does a phenomenal job with the material.
The other half of the cast, though, which includes characters like Norma (LaTanya Richardson-Jackson), a health aid who loses her sight from diabetes, and Carmen Reyes (Ilfenesh Hadera), a woman who leaves her children in the Dominican Republic because she can’t afford to keep them with her in the United States, completely stumbles. Although there are still some striking moments, overall the writing for the non-white half of the cast is disappointingly weak. What’s more, their stories feel pat, obvious and random, while their link to the political games being played on the other side of Yonkers are so far tenuous at best. It’s easy to understand that these people are the victims of what’s happening elsewhere, that they’re the ones who need better housing, but the connection isn’t there yet. Why these people and not others is the obvious question, and why are these storylines, of drug deals and immigration and health problems, such stereotypes? Obviously, the series may redeem things here, but thus far despite the valiant efforts from the cast to turn these roles into something more real, every time we cut away from the white side of things the show’s quality drops precipitously.
Which isn’t to say that Show Me a Hero is a bad show, just that it’s not as good as it feels like it could potentially be, or as good a show about the abuse of government to cause systemic racism as we could use right now. Simon is a truly brilliant writer and it’s just difficult to live up to his expectations. That is to say, it’s a matter of the show “only” being very good, rather than great, in the first two episodes that causes disappointment. Were there no expectations, it would be a different story. It should also be noted that “Part 2” is a step up from “Part 1.” Much of the wooden exposition is gone, and the scenes of white people on the verge of rioting so as to keep “those people” from their neighborhoods were bold. There was a man wearing a KKK shirt at the public hearing, and I credit the show for not zooming in on him or even taking notice of this detail. It was just a part of the show’s texture, and that’s something I could appreciate—we didn’t need this to be highlighted in order for it to speak at full maximum volume. Likewise, there was the great moment in which one of the racist white people, this one played by Catherine Keener, talks to the mayor on the phone and finds herself flummoxed by what actual argument she has to keep people of color away from her neighborhood. The best part of this scene isn’t the conversation itself, it’s that afterwards she refuses to have any introspection about this, dismisses the mayor as nobody, and it’s obvious she will continue fighting her racist fight despite not having any sort of reasoning behind it. None of this, though, is spoon fed or made palatable to the audience, which shows a maturity in the writing that’s so rare on television as to be almost non-existent.
So Show Me a Hero may be a letdown, at least this early on, but it’s at least a bold disappointment. It doesn’t let individuals off easily, and it doesn’t shy away from the reality of this horrible situation. But all of that ambition doesn’t let it off the hook for such a myriad of strange missteps. It’s hard not to wish that Simon had been given a couple more episodes (time moves faster in this show than he seems comfortable with—he’s a man concerned with processes, and here he just can’t delve as deeply into them as he’d like), or just a couple more rewrites, or perhaps just a director who doesn’t need to have everything amped far past realism in every single scene. However, while the first two episodes of Hero don’t quite come together, it’s definitely worth sticking around for the rest of the season.