There is no one alive who does television like David Simon. No one. Ever since The Wire, Simon has shown a willingness – even an excitement – to engage with complex social issues in an intelligent, well-informed way, one that offers equal parts education and entertainment. Few TV shows could legitimately lay the claim to being “life changing,” but The Wire may hold that honor, offering commentary and insight about the drug trade, police procedures, journalism, economics, and more, all while still being an engaging, entertaining piece of television. And even in subsequent projects – the brilliant Iraq War miniseries Generation Kill and the New Orleans paean of Treme – Simon has refused to back down, exploring ideas with nuance, thoughtfulness, and a refusal to let anything be simplified or dumbed down. And his TV work doesn’t even begin to touch on his work as a writer, as the man has managed to write two genuinely brilliant and profound works of social observation, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood.
But even with Simon’s credentials, it feels like Show Me a Hero is a challenge. Here’s David Simon trying to make a piece of entertainment about the fight over public housing. And to do the story justice means diving into zoning battles, housing design, and local politics – to say nothing of the fact that this is a story that brings out many of the worst sides of people. The fight over Yonkers’ public housing was an ugly one, and one that drug through the courts, invoked ugly displays of racism, and much worse before it was all done. Even by Simon’s standards, this seems like a hard show to dramatize.
But somehow, he did it, delivering another masterpiece in a career that’s been nothing but.
No small amount of the credit has to rest on the shoulders of Oscar Isaacs, delivering yet another fantastic performance that shows off his naturalism, charisma, and perfect sense of timing. As Yonkers politician Nick Wasicsko, Isaacs is as close as the series gets to a main protagonist, and it’s on his shoulders that most of the series’ early going rests. And he holds up beautifully, giving a performance that completely makes you understand how this man could get elected as mayor – and why he’s the kind of man who comes to feel that ideals are more important than politics. It’s a dangerous game Wasicsko is playing, but an important one, and Simon does what he does best: showing you both the nobility of his actions, and the righteousness of his cause, while never letting you forget the price he’s paying, both politically and personally. And with Isaacs’ performance, Wasicsko is compulsively watchable – you admire him, you worry about him, you enjoy him, and you’re fascinated by him.
And that same complex approach applies to the rest of the series. There are no easy victories in Show Me a Hero, and nothing gained without a price being paid. That prevents the series from being an audience pleaser, of course (as though Simon could ever be accused of being an optimist), but it gives it an honesty and a power that’s impossible to ignore or shrug off. Simon lets his characters be people, first and foremost, and that means showing them with their flaws, warts, and greatness, all on display, and all done without apology or justification. That’s maybe most notably present with Catherine Keener’s fantastic performance as a local citizen who loudly, angrily protests the housing projects, only to show nuance and thought when we least expect it. But it continues through the rest of the cast, most importantly with the depiction of the various tenants of Yonkers’ already existing projects. Some of them are great people; some are awful; but most? Most are just people – flawed, struggling, and doing their best. And it’s a fact that Simon never lets us forget, no matter what he’s showing.
As you’d expect from Simon, there’s a lesson to Show Me a Hero, and it’s not one that’s easily summarized. It forces you to look at the complicated issue of public housing, and see it in all of its complex reality – the good, the bad, and just how difficult it is. It looks at politics, and sees both what can be done, what can be prevented, and just how addictive and intoxicating power can be – and how losing it all can truly leave a person without anything. It reminds you of how important human kindness can be, but it also makes you see how painful and damaging cruelty really is. And it does all of this while entertaining, engaging, and telling a great story. In other words, it’s a David Simon project, with everything that implies and then some. And with Isaacs and a slew of other great performances, a naturalistic feel that works to the series’ advantage perfectly, and a gripping real-life saga that moved me deeply, it ranks up there with…well, with everything else the man has done.