David Simon’s The Wire is, in this writer’s opinion, the greatest TV series ever. Simon’s new miniseries for HBO, Show Me a Hero, is in some ways a postscript to The Wire, although that sells it short. I’m two episodes in, and I can’t wait for more.
Based on Lisa Belkin’s 1999 book, Show Me a Hero tells a true story about Yonkers, NY, from 1987-1994. A federal judge issued a desegregation order, mandating construction of 200 units of public housing in the affluent east side of Yonkers. Nick Wasicsko defeated a six-term incumbent to become the youngest mayor of a large U.S. city by promising to appeal the order.
Simon focuses the action of the first two episodes on Wasicsko, played by Oscar Isaac. Wasicsko isn’t a hero, although we learn he served as a county police officer and attended law school during his first term as Yonkers 7th Ward councilman; he was admitted to the bar in New York and Connecticut. Wasicsko is opposed to the desegregation order, mainly because everyone he knows is opposed to it. Wasicsko’s not an ideologue – he admits he always wanted to be mayor, because he likes the attention.
Simon’s genius, in The Wire and now in Show Me a Hero, is to show the effects of political policy on individuals. Roger Ebert wrote that movies are machines for generating empathy; in that sense, Simon is a master craftsman. Show Me a Hero cuts between stories of people living their lives. The stories often involve struggle (what lives don’t?) but they aren’t maudlin. Some critics have suggested that Show Me a Hero leans too strongly toward the stories of white politicians, and doesn’t give its black characters sufficient agency. On the other hand, the story’s framework is political, and Yonkers’ leaders were white at the time. If Simon shifted the balance in favor of black characters, he’d be telling a different story, or altering history. The history isn’t flattering.
Show Me a Hero arrives at a time when political leadership in the U.S. is increasingly extreme, less pragmatic, in platform and practice. Also, race relations in our country are not good. It was easy for most to believe they weren’t racist when groups like the Ku Klux Klan provided convenient figureheads. We’ve only begun to understand that institutional racism is the part of the iceberg under the water, vast and intractable.
One scene in the second episode of Show Me a Hero struck me as a thesis of sorts. Catherine Keener plays Mary Dorman, a middle class white woman who opposes allowing “those people” to live “across the street.” Wasicsko has Dorman thrown out of a council meeting when she won’t stop shouting; later, Dorman calls Wasicsko and is taken aback when he answers his own phone.
“I called, I wanted to tell you, um, that I think it’s wrong of you to support the housing…”
“Yeah, well, the law is the law, and ah… The judge ordered it, and the court upheld it. The law’s the law.”
“Well, why can’t you say that you think it’s wrong? At least let the people know that.”
“Because… that’s not what a leader’s supposed to do. A leader is supposed to lead, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Should that be as radical as it sounds? That leadership isn’t about telling people what they want to hear? The beauty of Isaac’s performance is that he seems to only figure it out in that moment, along with the audience, along with his caller, who is even more taken aback by this revelation.
David Simon used to be a journalist, and his television work has a journalistic integrity that is sometimes called didactic. As a talk show guest he is articulate and passionate about the questions his shows raise, mostly social justice issues. That’s what a leader’s supposed to do.