David Simon’s new HBO miniseries, Show Me a Hero, could not have come at a better time. A period piece set in the late 1980’s, the show is an unapologetic examination of the modern racism we are grappling with today. That is: the racism disguised as classism and North American libertarianism – the racism that hides behind claims of logic, fairness and white tradition. It’s important television, and you really need to watch it.
Centered around the city of Yonkers, New York, as it struggles with desegregation, Show Me a Hero is The Wire without the safety of the crime genre. It is concerned with politics, the insidious nature of hatred, and what it means to have a home, finding its thrills through honesty and humanity rather than genre revisionism. Based on the eponymous book by Lisa Belkin, directed by Paul Haggis and co-written by Simon and William F. Zorzi, Show Me a Hero is a six part series premiering on HBO this Sunday at 8 PM Eastern.
Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), the series protagonist and forebodingly titular hero (the show is named after half of the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy”), runs for mayor during this cultural turbulence and wins on the promise of fighting the supreme court’s ruling to force mixed race housing in the city. He quickly finds himself face to face with a high stakes (nigh apocalyptic) ultimatum and starts fighting for the side of desegregation while the city’s affluent white population turns riotous and the racial minorities of Yonkers live out the Simonian lives we’ve come to expect from the showrunner’s previous work on The Wire and Treme.
The contrast between Yonkers’ white and non-white population is both poetic and disturbing. The show has all of the hallmarks of an 80s period drama — from the wardrobe and retro branding to the montages set to Bruce Springsteen — but it could easily be set today and very little would have to be changed. It’s like M.A.S.H. in that way, using the events of the past as a direct allegory for contemporary events. The arguments made by the white citizens and politicians of Yonkers echo the apologetic racism you hear today in the news and across social media on a regular basis as America deals with the newly publicised deaths of innocent black people at the hands of police and young white gunmen.
For the first few episodes, the conflict is framed as an issue affecting whites and fought by whites. The city council meetings and courtroom scenes, which serve as the show’s political vehicle and A-plot, are nearly whitewashed, with white councilors, white lawyers, white judges, and white spectators all arguing and screaming their lungs out over the right for black citizens to live in subsidized housing in traditionally white neighbourhoods. While this happens, the men and women of colour go about living their lives in contrast to the stereotypical propaganda being spewed by the stubborn councilors positioned on the loud, proud, and wrong side of history.
Eventually, after making its point about the weird hypocrisy of white people dictating the terms of where black people can live, Show Me a Hero really gets cracking. Bringing black voices into the show’s political plotline is satisfying when it happens because Simon is so purposeful in developing the characters before hand. The miniseries format has allowed Simon the freedom to accelerate time when necessary, slowing down for real moments of quotidian love and pain but speeding up so that the politics are always compelling and the situation can change as needed. When a character decides to have a baby in one episode, for instance, she might be carrying it in the next one with no extraneous medical drama in between. Simon has a point to make, and with a journalistic eye for detail and fairness, he is making it better than he ever has before.
While the overall effect of the show is that of a parable on race relations in America, Show Me a Hero finds a way to stay grounded thanks to its commitment to real characters and a stellar script that will take its time with humanity but has no patience for tropes. It is a show about housing legislation that’s as compelling as The Wire, which is arguably the best TV series of all time. Show Me a Hero is necessary viewing: premium television that’s as entertaining as it is relevant.