Showrunner David Simon builds fully realized worlds on TV like a mythological god builds a universe of tiny humans. His shows are vivid microcosms of American cities—Baltimore for The Wire, New Orleans for Treme—and he pieces them together with an exquisite eye for detail, positioning a police precinct here, a housing project there, slowly populating the streets with addicts and detectives and officials with interconnected lives, training a magnifying glass on each character before pulling back for a breathtaking overhead view of the place where they live.
His new six-part miniseries is another masterwork of storytelling that’s both miniaturist and epic in scale. Based on Lisa Belkin’s nonfiction book of the same name, Show Me a Hero focuses on Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), a young mayor who was court-ordered to build low-income housing units in Yonkers, N.Y., during the 1980s and ’90s, when white property owners fought viciously to keep them out and the battle between the public and the government nearly destroyed the city. But like Yonkers itself, this show isn’t just about Wasicsko—it’s about the people he represents. There’s something righteously populist about the way Simon devotes equal attention to Norma (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), Doreen (Natalie Paul), and Carmen (Ilfenesh Hadera), three single moms whose lives could change with low-income housing, and to Mary (Catherine Keener), a white woman who fears her neighborhood will be destroyed if the units are built. It’s a human story, one that makes you empathize with everyone involved. And it’s also a mythic story, one that speaks to the institutional limitations of the American dream.
The title comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Show me a hero,” he penned in his published notebooks, “and I’ll write you a tragedy.” The reference is somewhat ironic. Those who know what really happened in Yonkers know that no one involved was a hero. (If you aren’t familiar with the story, you might want to refrain from Googling “Nick Wasicsko” so it won’t be spoiled.) Simon never paints the low-income housing residents as saints. One mother smokes crack during a vulnerable moment. One teenager drops out of school because she can’t even be bothered to show up. They’re flawed, but not any more than Wasicsko or Mary. This is Simon’s way of getting us to ask ourselves bigger questions: Why do we expect low-income housing residents to be model citizens when we don’t expect the same from homeowners? Why is it okay to police the poor and not the middle class?
Simon’s not really writing a tragedy either. He always makes it clear that one person’s tragedy is another’s victory, especially when it comes to politics. Watching a drama about a public-housing debate might sound boring until you see the incredibly suspenseful scenes where Wasicsko goes head-to-head with furious council members and a stone-faced judge, each threatening to bankrupt the city or throw someone in jail, as control swings wildly from one to another. The courtroom scenes are riveting, and so is Isaac’s emotional performance. Wasicsko is a man obsessed with power and ego, but he’s driven by the same heartfelt, hopeful belief as this thoughtful drama: Everyone deserves a place to call home. A