[This is a review for Show Me a Hero Parts 1 & 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
If there is one thing that David Simon excels at, it's the ability to take an incredibly complex examination of an already complex system or issue and somehow make it entertaining television. This is something the creator has managed to do with all of his projects for HBO. From The Wire to Tremé, Simon has sought to blend awareness with compelling storytelling in an effort to get the best from both aspects that matter to his brand of TV. It's social commentary that doesn't feel didactic or sacrifice entertainment.
In his new miniseries Show Me a Hero, Simon enlists the help of Paul Haggis, co-writer William F. Zorzi, and, much to the delight of everyone watching, Oscar Isaac, in order to bring this adaptation of Lisa Belkins' nonfiction book of the same name to life for a three-week, 6-hour stint on the network.
Initially, it's the talent involved that makes the miniseries appealing. Simon has a sterling track record and Oscar Isaac has been prolific as of late, popping up in well-received films like A Most Violent Year and Alex Garland's Ex Machina, and will soon be featured in the upcoming Star Wars and X-Men films – which perhaps you have heard mention of. At any rate, the talent and reputation of both certainly precedes what at first appears to be a daunting narrative about a politically and racially charged public housing debacle in Yonkers, NY during the late '80s.
Isaac takes on the role of Nick Wasicsko, an ambitious politician who finds himself the youngest mayor in the U.S. after defeating Angelo Martinelli (Jim Belushi), the long-standing incumbent, largely through his promise to appeal an unpopular court order, mandating the construction of affordable housing in Yonkers. After the votes are tallied, however, Wasicsko quickly learns the appeal was denied, and now the city is up against a judge prepared to drive the city into bankruptcy if it fails to comply with the order, as it has done for several years.
Needless to say, it's complex issue. In fact, almost to underline how complex an issue the miniseries is dealing with, at one point during the first two-hours, Isaac's character picks up a dishearteningly large legal document and slams it down on a table with a resounding thud. Mercifully, that's as close to deciphering legalese as it gets. The miniseries could have delved into the minutia of a plan to bring 200 units of affordable housing to predominantly white neighborhoods in Yonkers, making a point of why the issue was a thorny one from a legal standpoint, but instead it taps into a powerful, emotional narrative that is decidedly more human and emotional.
Some of those emotions are embarrassing, but because of that, they become necessary to look at, especially when an issue as basic as people looking for a better place to live becomes so heated – as residents who oppose the plan often interrupt one another to make statements that typically start with, "We're not prejudiced…" or to argue it's an issue of property value. History certainly doesn't paint the opposition in a pleasant light, but even still, the miniseries seek to explore both sides of the issue through a series of seemingly divergent storylines that offer a glimpse into the lives of the would-be residents of the proposed housing projects and those who vocally oppose the plan.
While Simon and director Paul Haggis use the ugly situation mayor-elect Nick Wasicsko finds himself and his administration in as the foundation of the storyline, they assemble the larger picture by spending time with a multitude of characters. The first two episodes focus on a young mother-to-be, a home health nurse who is rapidly losing her sight, and a single mother from the Dominican Republic who is faced with the difficult decision of earning more money versus raising her kids in a place where they aren't forced to stay indoors for their own safety.
Admittedly, these segments feel a little discordant. The shift from Wasicsko facing angry mobs of constituents and attempting to persuade certain members of the court order-defying city council (led primarily by Alfred Molina, gnawing on an ever-present toothpick) is abrupt at first. The other storylines, however, develop with haste that keeps them from languishing. Unfortunately, that means the story employs a technique bordering on sentiment – the image of a little boy saying a silent goodbye to a toy teeters on the brink of mawkishness – but thankfully these sections never quite devolve into complete schmaltz.
In addition to keeping the emotionalism in check, Simon and Zorzi succeed in leavening the story by adding small but meaningful touches that make terrific use of Isaac's inimitable screen presence. Wasicsko may be up against the wall, but that doesn't mean the atmosphere of the series is in any way oppressive. Small moments matter, like the life Nick's building with his girlfriend (Carla Quevedo), or simply going to a bar with his close personal friend Vinni Restiano (played by Winona Ryder) to talk about the addictive nature of politics, saying things like "I miss the stress," and making the audience believe it. The first two hours also gets a lot of mileage out of a darkly comical moment in which a paranoid Wasicsko clutches a revolver while visiting his father's grave.
While Isaac manages to be a charismatic lead, capable of keeping the weighty material from feeling like a chore, he is bolstered considerably by the presence of Catherine Keener, taking on the role of Mary Dorman, an opponent to the public housing prone to saying things like, "They don't live the way we do. They don't want what we want," as a way to justify her particular stance.
But as a terrific scene at the end of Part 2 demonstrates, in which Isaac and Keener talk with one another on the phone, there's more to these characters and their feelings about the issue at hand than a simple "for" or "against." And this is Show Me a Hero's strongest asset: the ability to take a story and illustrate the way in which the real-life narrative expanded into something complex and frustrating and frightening without sacrificing the human element that makes it so compelling to watch here.
Show Me a Hero continues next Sunday with Parts 3 & 4 @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview below: