One of the things Show Me a Hero couldn’t help but remind me of was Michael Schur’s Parks & Recreation. It also deals with local politics, but in a much more optimistic, forgiving, and satirical manner than what we see in David Simon’s version of America. Both shows are populated by sprawling casts and feature scenes of mob anger, and Simon and Schur are the two writers on television most interested in exploring process—the way an accumulation of small events grows into something bigger. In fact, there’s a certain odd parallel between Ben Wyatt’s career as mayor of Partridge, Minnesota where he soon lost his position due to a city planning fiasco (Ice Town) and that of Nick Wasicsko, who during these two episodes, loses his position due to Yonkers’ intolerance. But Parks and Recreation had one thing that Show Me a Hero doesn’t, and that’s airtime, which continues to have a negative effect on the show’s storytelling.
As Hero continues, it becomes more clear that structurally it just doesn’t have the right balance of material for filling six episodes. Early into “Part 4” we’re introduced to another story of life in Yonkers’ housing projects, however (like the others in the first two episodes) this is a very rote tale of poverty and misery: a young woman becomes pregnant and her boyfriend is arrested. At this point, every public housing story has been a tale of very typical misery. Immigration, pregnancy, drugs—it’s like Simon and William Zorzi, the show’s other writer, had a checklist they were running through for every non-white character on the show, the clichéd beats that needed to be hit in order to depict exactly what form of poverty these characters are subjected to.
These stories are one of the most important parts of Hero, in theory. It’s to Simon’s credit that he didn’t want to make the show about the legislation alone, it’s about the people affected by the legislation. Yet by making the stories so utterly basic, it’s almost as bad as not showing them at all. As Hero continues, the cast remains extraordinary, putting out moving performances from stiff dialogue and routine stories that are always just one step away from insulting, but that’s not enough. In order to really show us the lives of those affected by Yonkers’ institutionalized racism, we have to have fully three-dimensional people to care about, and that remains sadly missing. Were Hero to have more time, it feels like these stories could have become something more real and not just miserabilist stereotypes. But with six episodes and four stories it wants to tell here, there just isn’t much time to get through to real depth. As a result, the show still doesn’t come together, and we’re left wondering whether it will at all, with just two more episodes left.
That being said, there was a bright point with these stories, as they did finally begin drifting towards integration with the other half of the show. Norma O’Neal (LaTanya Richardson-Jackson) had a conversation with one of her friends about whether or not to move into the new housing projects when they’re completed. They argue and don’t come to much of a conclusion, and with this, we have one of the most intelligent exchanges the show has offered so far. What’s so great about this, as well as a later exchange between judge Sand (Bob Balaban) and Oscar Newman (Peter Riegert) about his plans for what the housing must be in order to follow his philosophy, is that it’s unclear whether this is even a good idea in the first place. Yes, the fight against these racist policies is important, but there is a sort of homogenization and removal of culture going on here as well. This fight, which is so easy to see in simple terms of good and evil, becomes more interesting when the nuances of actual people become involved. That’s the first time this has happened, and it enriches the show immensely. I don’t want to spoil anything, but this is a signal of very good things to come in the show’s finale.
For all of this smart material, though, there’s an equal amount of truly cloying, heavy handed storytelling. The exchange in which characters of the show not only say the show’s title but explain it to the audience too, was so bad I wanted to cover my ears in embarrassment. Almost as bad, though, were the cross-cutting between voters queuing up in a line and drug addicts queuing up for their dealer. Every time you start feeling drawn into Hero’s story, there’s another element that pulls you out of it, that points out the unreality of what’s happening. We don’t need to be guided by the nose in order to see what’s happening, so whenever that happens it points to a lack of faith in the audience that’s completely unpalatable.
Hero begins accelerating once Nick’s out of office, which makes sense given how much time it needs to depict, but when this begins it’s difficult to tell where we are in time and space, not to mention how things are developing politically. Once again the six-episode time limit strikes, and it feels like we’re getting so many shorthand versions of scenes or events that deserve more screen time. More stories start feeling perfunctory. By the end of episode four, Nay Noe feels like a complete cipher and non-entity (Does she still work for the mayor? How are they affording this big house? Does she have a family?), and she’s not the only one. Obviously in order to tell this story through 1993 many concessions had to be made, but with this it feels like we’re starting to just skim most of what’s happening. While the first two episodes of Hero felt like we were digging in a bit with these political messes, during “Part 4” it sometimes feels like we’re getting the Cliff’s Notes version of what was happening in Yonkers.
“Part 4” ends with a reminder, though, that the center of everything here is racism, as racist graffiti vandalizes the newly constructed houses. There’s a bluntness to these images, a confrontational aspect that seems, on the one hand, over-the-top but on the other completely necessary—shying away from this would be a disservice to everyone. I still have trouble with the theatricality of the show, the desire for every scene to be emotional and affecting, because this undercuts the reality of what was happening here. But the graffiti at the end of “Part 4” undercuts all of that, reminding us that these symbols and characters are all circling around something real, that they are attempts at getting at something beyond melodrama and abstraction. There are scenes in Hero I sigh about, and there are others that make me roll my eyes, but it’s also doing something right, because the riots and the graffiti and the effigies are all still affecting and visceral. I want Hero to be a better show because it has the courage to say these things and stick by its convictions, and it would be glorious if the resulting story could live up to the message. At this point it still doesn’t, but at least when the Hero is good it tends to be very good, and its images and ideas stay in your head long after the last Bruce Springsteen song is done playing.