Airtime: Available streaming on HBOGo
By: Jeff Iblings, Contributor
David Simon does a compelling job of showing the housing problems in Yonkers, NY in the 80’s and 90’s from all angles in SHOW ME A HERO. With a strong cast, it’s an emotional roller coaster ride as we watch the rise and fall of Nick Wasicsko within the Yonkers City government.
Now, I’m just going to come right out and admit it. I may be the only person left who hasn’t watched The Wire. I haven’t even seen anything beyond the pilot episode of Treme. The only Simon I think I’ve watched is Generation Kill, which was good, but I had no idea how well Simon can show all sides of an argument and let you decide for yourself. Show Me A Hero was masterly interwoven to show us the community of Yonkers, with all of the ins and outs politically, as well as the viewpoints of the residents. At the same time it shows the personal journey of Wasicsko. It made for a very interesting 6 hours of television. Oscar Isaac plays the lead Nick Wasicsko with a natural charisma that really draws people to him. Throughout the series, Wasicsko continually goes to his father’s grave to talk to him and tell him what’s going on in his life, as if looking for a father’s approval even after his death. It’s touching, and comes back into play in a big way at the end of the series.
We’re dropped into the show right as the federal government has issued the city of Yonkers a desegregation order which made it mandatory that they build 200 units of low income housing within the east, mostly white side of Yonkers. The residents in return fight tooth and nail to keep the status quo, and keep the black and Latino residents in the west from moving in.
Wasicsko uses the anti-desegregation anger to challenge the sitting mayor, who’s decided to give in to the Federal mandate. Wasicscko eventually become the youngest mayor in the United States at the age of 28. The problem is his campaign promise to fight the desegregation order all the way to the Supreme Court fails, and soon fines against the city accumulate to the tune of $1 million a day for non-compliance. It nearly bankrupts the city and closes down essential services as well as libraries and parks. Wasicsko’s views begin to change, and he champions the low-income housing, but comes up against huge hostility from the city council as well as angry citizens. There are death threats, and the whole city seems to be unraveling along racial lines. The stress begins to weigh on Wasicsko, and stomach problems and paranoia begin to creep in on Isaac’s face as the city council entrenchment wears on.
The best part of the show is the delicate balance of POV’s between the residents of the housing projects whose lives will change for the better once the new low income housing is built, and the white residents opposed to the housing coming to their neighborhood. With tag along with Alma Febles, a single mother from the Dominican Republic as she tries to make ends meet but struggles to simply provide the necessities to her children. The other hugely fascinating character comes from the other end of the spectrum. Mary Dorman (played by Catherine Keener) starts out as an angry, racist member of the white community in the east who vehemently opposes the low-income housing, but when confronted with the people who may move to her neighborhood softens and becomes one of the biggest proponents of the housing.
The smart thing about a show like this is letting us get invested in all of the characters at the same time. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one they pull off. The humanization of the residents of the housing projects goes a long way for us to root for them to get out of the neglected public housing that’s been allowed to fall into dilapidation. We want them to get a new lease on life, and a chance to get a foot up. Likewise, getting to know Mary Dorman and her kind also gives us a chance to see the ugly side of the city, which goes a long way toward explaining how the public housing has been allowed to get as bad as it has. Out of sight, out of mind for the white residents of the east. Seeing both sides of the citizenry in this fight, gives the arguments between Mayor Wasicsko and the city council more weight. There’s more at stake, and it invests us in the fight.
There are so many wonderful character actors in this mini-series that really give the characters and their struggles weight. Between Jim Belushi, Winona Ryder, Bob Balaban, and Alfred Molina (amongst others) there’s a real texture to the city government and its workings. What would normally be a dull and boring city council session becomes an interesting power struggle at the hands of these actors.
The tragic part of the show and the life of Wasicsko is the way he fell from grace publicly in the aftermath of the desegregation housing. He was never really given the recognition he deserved for the success of the low-income housing. Because of his stance, he lost the next election for mayor, barely won a city council seat in his own district, was gerrymandered out of his district and ran against one of his best friends Vinni Restiano (Winona Ryder) and lost, only to take his life on election night in 1993 in the cemetery where his father was buried. His political life over, he was unable to move on.
For six months out of the year Jeff is holed up in his home with nothing to do but shovel snow, watch television, write, and dream of warmer climates. Twitter: @OfSoundnVision