For Men

House arrest

- Scott R. Garceau - The Philippine Star

When David Simon, creator of The Wire, says that he’s doing another series for HBO, we’re interested. Period.

When it’s set in a 1980s midsize US city that’s experiencing the same racial divisions that occur even today in America, we’re still interested.

When it features a cast that includes Oscar Isaac, Winona Ryder, Al Molina, Catherine Keneer and Peter Reigert, you can tell that HBO looks upon Show Me A Hero, based on a New York Times journalist’s nonfiction book, as gold standard television.

Isaac, playing Nick Wasicsko, a young councilman in mostly white Yonkers, New York, is elected mayor on the heels of voter dissatisfaction with previous mayor Jim Belushi over a federal desegregation law. It’s 1987 and a US federal judge has found that Yonkers — among other US cities — has systematically separated white housing from African-American housing, and seeks to mix the two together. Wasicsko thinks he can celebrate once he wins the mayor’s seat; but he finds it’s way too early to do a victory dance. Most of the white working-class of voters of Yonkers are mad as hell, and he finds it’s up to him to implement the unpopular law, which mandates that he build 200 housing units for black homeowners.

As he did with The Wire and Treme, Simon goes deep into the community: he takes us into a cross-section of Yonkers, including white, Latino and black families affected by the federal law. The six-part series is ably directed by Paul Haggis (Crash), and while it lacks the nuances of the much more ambitious six seasons of The Wire, it covers similar territory, including the struggles of people on the lower economic spectrum, told without condescension or sentimentality. It also charts the compromises of politics, much as The Wire focused on Baltimore Mayor Carcetti (played to perfection by Aidan Gillen, who went on to play yet another political operative, Petyr Baelish, in HBO’s Game of Thrones), and the way his mayoral victory turned into the hangover of actually governing a bankrupt city.

Here’s the thing about David Simon’s television shows: he refuses to dumb down reality. Show Me A Hero dwells on the nitty-gritty of policy. But not with the soap opera-like machinations that drive a show like House of Cards, where political decisions are merely made to further raw ambition. Simon’s shows, we like to think, offer us something closer to reality -- perhaps closer to reality than most TV viewers would like to handle. (The show’s title, after all, comes from an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.”)

Episodes one and two introduce us to Wasicsko, an ambitious and likable councilman who has never really taken a strong stand on anything. When longtime Mayor Angelo Martinelli (Belushi) is swept aside in the election by angry white voters, Wasicsko steps into the vacuum. He’s the type of callow, cocky leader Tom Cruise used to play in the olden days: “I’ve always wanted to be mayor,” he declares to new squeeze Nay (Carla Quevedo) who works on his campaign, as though he’s still campaigning. With his droopy mustache and hangdog look, Isaac brings to mind another reformer, Officer Frank Serpico played by Al Pacino in the ‘70s anti-corruption classic. But so far, Wasicsko’s no Serpico: we expect he’s going to taste the fury of a largely angry voting public, not to mention pressure from black leaders and the federal government, before he really steps up to the plate.

Things heat up by the second episode, when new mayor Wasicsko starts receiving bullets and threatening letters in the mail. “Hey, this mayor thing? When does the fun part start?” he jokes. Molina, playing a hardliner, stirs up his voters who see any federal intervention for “the good” of the community as a betrayal. Not so different from the tactics of Donald Trump on immigration, actually.

It’s good, too, to see Ryder stepping back into a dramatic role, playing a political junkie who gets voted out as councilwoman and stands on the sidelines, commiserating with Wasicsko’s troubles.

Another focus is Keener, voicing the middle class white homeowners who see subsidized low-cost housing as unfair to those who worked hard to pay for their homes. “These people,” she says, shaking her head in disgust at black protesters on TV. “They don’t live the we way we live. They don’t want what we want.” No simple answers are likely to emerge from Show Me A Hero; just an airing of all sides.

The people of Yonkers emerge as yet another character — full of rage that is not without reason. As with the busing issue — in which black and white students were bused to different schools to achieve “racial balance” — those at the middle and working class level feel their options are always being squeezed and compromised by “liberal” politicians.

If you’re the kind of viewer who enjoyed A Civil Action, or courtroom dramas that don’t involve showy, flashy stunt lawyers, Show Me A Hero may whet your whistle. It certainly rewards the intelligence of viewers. And — minus the dragons — it probably has as much political footwork and wire-pulling as an episode of Game of Thrones.

Is Show Me A Hero anywhere near as great or ambitious as The Wire? No, considering that it only focuses on one aspect of the racial equation, which is housing politics. But here David Simon prefers to pick up on yet another troubled chapter in American history, filling it with details, light and shade. Welcome to reality, HBO viewers. 





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Show Me A Hero airs Monday nights on HBO at 8 p.m.












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