Aaron Yap looks at Show Me a Hero, the six part miniseries from the creators of The Wire that examines the 1987 housing crisis in New York – and eerily mirrors our own current property strife.
Housing. Land. Property. These might be among the least dramatically engaging subjects I can think of. The last time I went down this road it turned out to be an eye-rolling, yawn-inducing time (hello True Detective and your high-speed railway BS). So the thought of sitting down with HBO’s Show Me a Hero filled me with slight trepidation. Based on Lisa Belkin’s 1999 book of the same name, this six-part miniseries is a super-specific study of a little-known seven-year housing crisis in New York. Not exactly the water-cooler-tailored stuff of populist television.
The pairing of its creative team seems a little off too. It’s written by David Simon and William F. Forzi, both behind arguably the most acclaimed show of all time, The Wire, but directed by Paul Haggis, who’s known for one of the most undeserved Best Picture Oscar winners of all time, Crash. Haggis’ broad-stroke storytelling and Simon and Zorzi’s journalistic discipline would suggest an uneasy oil-and-water dynamic, but Show Me a Hero manages to go down easier than expected. Haggis does a respectable, measured job of preserving Simon’s fondness for the talky, detailed intricacies of procedural while capitalising on the impassioned drama of the story’s ripped-from-the-headlines timeliness.
Mirroring the ongoing racial tension plaguing the US and strangely, our own housing crises, Show Me a Hero depicts the moral, social quagmire swelling around the court-mandated integration of 200 units of low-income housing into the affluent, mostly-white neighbourhoods of 1987 Yonkers, New York. Its narrative schema is slightly didactic, and not especially complex, but effective. The cross-cutting between the upper-echelon maneuverings of politicians and the day-to-day struggles of the coloured community they are regulating functions to highlight the sociological disconnect that lies at the heart of its tale.
Adding another terrific performance to his winning run of consistently strong roles, Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Ex Machina) deftly channels prime ‘70s-era Pacino as Nick Wasicsko, a young councilman who rises up the ranks to replace the six-term Angelo R. Martinelli (Jim Belushi) as the mayor of Yonkers.
Isaac plays Wasicsko with a personable, slightly rakish quality that makes him a suitable gateway into the mounting municipal nightmare that’s about to unfold. We realise how bad it’s going to get: the first time we see Wasicsko, in media res, he’s a haunted, burned-out Maalox-chugging husk. It’s a complete turnaround to the earnestly campaigning Wasicsko we get to know in the first part, still unaware he’s about to be another cog in a thoroughly broken system.
Like The Wire, Show Me a Hero drops you in on the action with a naturalistic briskness that demands viewer attention. If not for the few recognisable faces, including Winona Ryder, Alfred Molina and Bob Balaban, the players in those council chamber portions risk blending into one suit-wearing blob.
The characters in the projects are more distinctive and sympathetic in their individual plights. There’s Norma (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), a home aide whose failing eyesight will leave her without a job; the child-expectant Doreen (Natalia Paul), who’s in a relationship with asthmatic drug dealer Skip (J. Mallory McCree); and Carmen (Ilfenesh Hadera), a single, financially troubled mum who’s forced to ship her children back to the Dominican Republic. These are not necessarily the most gripping parts of the show at the moment, but finely sketched vignettes setting the table for the eventual crossing of paths in the ensuing shitstorm.
We’re already seeing glimpses of the brewing outrage and political messiness towards the end of ‘Part Two’. The city is buckling under the burden of potential bankruptcy from non-compliance. The opponents of desegregation, with their fears of plummeting property values and ghettoisation, are growing increasingly vocal, even threatening violence. “These people. They don’t live the way we do”, balks Yonkers resident Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener: excellent, but donning a bad wig).
Even acknowledging that the reality was probably much worse, some of these moments – perhaps a fault of Haggis’ unsubtle staging sneaking through – do feel a little overplayed and melodramatic. The scene where churchgoers refuse to donate verges on caricature in the same way that Molina’s anti-housing councilman Spallone hasn’t developed into anything more than a toothpick-munching villain yet.
For all its imperfections, Show Me a Hero stands to be an unflinching, sobering, powerfully topical work that’ll reinforce Simon’s reputation as the medium’s foremost civics dramatist. I’m not expecting any heroes to emerge out of this, but more councilmen bashing their heads against walls, white middle class hysteria and montages scored to Springsteen.
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