Show Me a Hero 1×01-1×02 ‘Part 1 and 2’: “…and I’ll show you a tragedy”

Show Me a Hero 1x01 Cover

David Simon’s television shows have been met with heaps of critical praise, from his television series Homicide: Life in the Street, The Wire, and Treme, to his television miniseries The Corner and Generation Kill.  There isn’t one of his shows that isn’t a magnificent work of art, and Show Me a Hero is no different.  A soaring, brilliant indictment of the disconnect between politics and the people politicians are supposed to serve, Show Me a Hero doesn’t hold the hand of the audience, instead throwing them into the story.  A show about the glacial pace of politics would be tedious and mind-numbing in anybody else’s hands, but Simon transforms it by including multiple voices and perspectives that lend the political story meaning and poignancy.

To put it simply, you need to watch this show.

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Source: HBO

“Part 1” does a great deal of table-setting, and, as is true for many of David Simon’s shows, takes maybe 20 or 30 minutes to really hit its stride.  It’s 1987, and the federal government has ruled that Yonkers, a city in New York with close proximity to the Bronx, has to build 200 units of low-income housing in its city.  The city council is responsible for coming up with a plan for the housing, including where it is located and how many units go in each location.  Of course, with the connotations that low-income housing (“the projects”) brings, there is a great deal of outcry from the city’s population, and the city council members react by arguing over what district gets how much housing.  Nobody wants housing in their district, nobody wants housing at all because they all want to be re-elected, and angry constituents don’t help to get politicians re-elected.  Which brings us to one of the most important overarching themes of the mini-series: the inherent nature of democratic politics creates a system where the politicians enable the constituents and the constituents enable the politicians.  It’s a vicious cycle that removes government from its intended goal: to serve all people under it.

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Source: HBO

Within “Part 1”, we’re also introduced to the main players in the series.  Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) is the city council member that becomes mayor after Angelo Martinelli (Jim Belushi), the current mayor, loses as a result of the housing decision negatively impacting his career.  Many of the other city council members, such as Vinni Restiano (Winona Ryder) aren’t re-elected as a result of their support for the low-income housing, though Henry J. Spallone (Alfred Molina), probably the most antagonistic of the city council members, is re-elected and passionately argues against the housing throughout these first two episodes.  Judge Leonard Sand (Bob Balaban) tries to force the Yonkers city council to come to a decision, even though they continually vote against proposed housing plans, and Michael Sussman (Jon Bernthal), the lawyer that represents the NAACP, continually speaks out in support of the housing as well.

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Source: HBO

In absolutely integral supporting roles, we have Doreen Henderson (Natalie Paul), a soon-to-be mother who grew up in the suburbs but loses control of her life during her time in the housing projects, Norma O’Neal (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), a home health aid who loses her job after she loses her sight to diabetes, and Carmen Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera), a woman who is forced to leave her children for Yonkers when she needs money to support her family.  There is also Mary Dorman(Catherine Keener), a homeowner in East Yonkers who wants to help those in poverty but finds herself succumbing to the fear and hysteria present in her community.  These supporting roles ground the political story by reminding us often just who is affected by these political decisions.  In the case of Mary Dorman, we’re also reminded of the contagious nature of fear and how a mob mentality can devolve people into their basest instincts.

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Source: HBO

The first two episodes cover Nick Wasicsko’s mayoral campaign, which he wins as a fluke off of his vote to appeal the low-income housing decision, as well as the initial insanity within the community as Nick pushes the city council towards developing a workable plan for the housing.  City council members that oppose the housing consistently vote against proposal plans in order to appeal to their terrified and angry constituents, and Yonkers is repeatedly fined and is inevitably held in contempt of court as a result.  The tension within the political story revolves around Nick’s desperate attempts to unite the city council as the city becomes more incensed, which seem to fail more and more as these two episodes go on.  Violence is also a lingering threat, as Nick is sent a bullet as a threat and supporters of the housing are attacked.  The city council meeting scenes are especially telling, as the vitriol spewed by Yonkers’s citizens is so vile that the police are often required to intervene.

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Source: HBO

The supporting cast have the most important stories to tell, even though they are told quickly and concisely.  Since the Americans with Disabilities Act wasn’t passed yet (it was passed in 1990), the housing projects weren’t required to be accessible to those with disabilities, and people like Norma are forced to struggle just to survive.  As the episodes go on, Norma’s condition deteriorates to the point that she can’t really function on her own, and there are no social programs in place to help her.  Not to mention that she doesn’t have adequate health care, so her diabetes goes unchecked to the point that her deterioration is inevitable.  Doreen’s story also takes a dark turn quickly, as she is left without her child’s father after he dies from issues with his breathing.  And Carmen is forced to leave her family behind in order to work in America to get money for them, something that happens all too often with mothers of color from disenfranchised countries that have to work for white wealthy people in order to provide for their families.

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Source: HBO

It’s also important to remember that racism within housing policy has been an extremely important issue for the last century, even though it has been on the back of the American media’s focus for a long time.  From redlining practices, such as denying homeowners in certain “zones” from getting mortgages, to intimidation, where “white” neighborhoods would keep people of color from living there by way of force, housing policy has been purposefully segregated as long as America has been around.  And these housing practices are a massive driving force behind people of color being pushed into low-income housing, even though those same people of color are often blamed for their own conditions.  It’s the American Dream exposed as a lie, and those who exist as evidence of that lie are dehumanized in order to preserve it.  And so, in Show Me a Hero, when low-income housing has to be installed within the city, it takes the privilege from those who have it and gives some to those who don’t.  And there is nothing more difficult than giving up privilege.

Okay.  Now that we’ve gotten the plot, characters, and history out of the way, let’s really dig into the show.

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Source: HBO

What Show Me a Hero does particularly well is show the complexity of the reason for the outcry.  It’s not just that the white people of Yonkers are just racist bigots.  It’s that they’re terrified of what happens to their privilege once their comfort is partially shared with those that don’t have it.  They’re also terrified of what happens when the American Dream is exposed as a lie, of what happens when they’re forced to reconcile their assertion that they built their lives from the ground up with the reality that the ground is paved with the bodies of the disempowered, the bodies of people of color (especially black people).  So they look to the politicians, to people like Nick Wasicsko to preserve their vision of the American Dream, to vilify low-income housing projects because they expose the truth.

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Source: HBO

But Nick’s final scene in the second episode is remarkably important.  He asserts to Mary Dorman that he can’t speak out against the low-income housing, even though he knows how much of a pain it makes his job as mayor.  And he asserts this because he is a leader, because he has to follow the orders of the law, because he has to push forward even if he doesn’t want to.  And it’s here that we see David Simon’s optimism pushing through all of the brutal reality.  If politics can be set aside, if people can look at what really helps people, then America won’t have trouble moving forward.  It’s self-interest, and the willingness to preserve privilege and delusion, that curses America to its dismal fate.  Government is meant to help the people it governs, and when people are willing to commit to that help, there’s an ounce of hope in the world.  Nick is the “hero” here because he pushes against a system that is wholly disconnected from the dismal injustices that people like Norma and Carmen and Doreen live in.

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Source: HBO

But it’s people like Nick who get hurt for being heroes.  Henry Spallone uses racist rhetoric to fight back against the housing, continually votes (in spite of the law) against the housing, and the crowd cheers him on.  He’s a paragon of the system that defends the lie of the American Dream, the one who reinforces the delusion of the citizens, and he’s the one who is rewarded because he’s essentially feeding people junk food instead of something healthy.  It’s cynical, to be sure, but it’s also reality.  People love having their egos stroked, their worst impulses validated, their comfort preserved.  But it’s people like Nick Wasicsko and Leonard Sand and Michael Sussman that push others to shed their delusion in place of reality, not because reality is easier, but because it allows room to change things in a way that helps those brutalized by America’s racist, classist, sexist, ableist history.  And it’s stories like Doreen’s and Norma’s and Carmen’s that remind us what reality is, of the things that we need to change.

This is all rather cursory, and it’s something that I will continue to elaborate on as Show Me a Hero moves into its second and third act, but it’s a message that is especially profound today.  Ferguson, Baltimore, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Treyvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, John Crawford, Phillip White, and Walter Scott all serve as a collective “WAKE UP” to how we really treat disenfranchised people (especially black people) in America.  They are deprived of economic stability, access to health care, access to decent education, access to employment, are subject to mass incarceration and police brutality, and are subject to humiliation, violence, and everyday prejudice on a constant basis.  And people need to continue to wake up to these realities, if not for themselves, then for the sake of those disenfranchised.

All in all, Show Me a Hero is a brilliant mini-series that continues the national dialogue in a way that reminds us that, while things do improve, they still remain dismally the same.

What do you think of Show Me a Hero so far?  Does it live up to David Simon’s other mini-series?  Let me know in the comments!

Michael St. Charles

is just a Michigan State University grad who loves a good story. If he’s not off teaching the young ones how to solve quadratic functions or to write an expository essay, he’s watching old-school HBO shows, indie horror movies, or he’s playing Resident Evil 4.

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