It's at once remarkable and completely unsurprising that Show Me a Hero, HBO's new miniseries debuting Sunday, August 16, is as mesmerizing and terrific as it is.
The miniseries' success is unsurprising because one of the chief creative forces behind it is David Simon, the man who's made the inner workings of American bureaucracy his chief dramatic subject in TV series as varied as Homicide: Life on the Street, The Corner, The Wire, Generation Kill, and Treme.
But it's remarkable because the subject matter of the miniseries is not, on its face, the immediate source of visceral drama. The adaptation of Lisa Belkin's book follows the long, seemingly quixotic battle by Yonkers, New York, mayor Nick Wasicsko to build government-mandated housing projects in his city in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Along the way, Wasicsko, who actually campaigned against the projects, runs up against opposition from the courts, the public who elected him, and his chief political opponent, Henry Spallone. It's a deliberately unsexy topic (housing desegregation), and its central message is about just how difficult it can be to do anything in a democracy.
I recently sat down with Simon and his Show Me a Hero co-writer, William F. Zorzi (a former colleague of Simon's at the Baltimore Sun), to talk about the project's modern resonances, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and why Simon is feeling just a twinge of optimism every so often. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
"The quiet things that happen between people in kitchens never make it into the headlines"
In several interviews around the last season of The Wire, you said that the stories that weren't getting covered by the show's fictional journalists were what was important in that season. I thought of that with the scenes featuring the characters who would eventually be moving to the new projects. Their lives are so disconnected from the political debate going on around them.
They have no agency! The quiet things that happen between people in kitchens never make it into the headlines, do they, unless something goes really awry. That mattered to me.
This is a story about a government that is almost wholly white. Because of the way everything was districted, by the time Nick becomes mayor there isn't a black member on that council. They're governing the way they want to govern Yonkers, utterly independent of the thought that 20 percent of their city is unrepresented by the government, were unheard in the councils and government. That's one of the reasons why things turn out as bad as they do. There's this element of absolute white privilege in Yonkers in 1987.
The government was entirely white until the houses get built. Then you'll see in the last two episodes, some of these characters have real agency over their own lives. Some of them become community leaders. Some of them assert for their own dignity. Boy, it's a relief when they do, because you're absolutely right. They're waiting for some governance that actually incorporates their basic aspirations for a better life, and they're waiting and they're waiting. These people are arguing, voting, speech-making. To me it's infuriating, but I do understand that it's hard to watch people without agency.
That's been in the headlines a lot lately, the idea of white governance of primarily minority citizens.
William F. Zorzi:
Or white privilege.
Where do you see the connections between then and now?
They're different issues, but they're all tied into the same thing. If you look at Ferguson or Baltimore or Charleston or Lafayette, there's this angry notion that the country was one thing and we had it. It was ours. Now the country is not that thing anymore. America is becoming less white.
It has not gone without notice by people who think that when there are no official majorities and no official minorities, it might cure some of what ails us in our nation of pluralities, where you walk into the room and the coalition is whoever you can sway by argument and not necessarily your kind. That might be a better place. That might be a better republic.
There's a lot of people looking at it and saying, "I'm not used to walking into rooms and sharing power and sharing space and geography and all the other things that a society has to do." That guy who walked into that movie theater in Lafayette, or that guy who walked into the church in Charleston, you're seeing the extremity of a sentiment that is out there, which is anti-immigrant, anti-minority. It's rooted in the sense of, "That's not the country that I signed up for." Not only is it wrong, but it's destined to fail.
I see it in my son's generation. I have a college-age son, and I don't think he's indicative of everybody in America, but I think when I watch him and I watch his friends, they can walk into a room and not be in the majority. They'll notice. It's not an obscure thing. The trick is in not giving a shit. That's the moment where we go from being dysfunctional to being a collective again. I think that moment is certainly less far off than it was.
There's a lot of other people being reactionary about it, and there's always going to be a rear guard, but I actually feel better about the potential for change now than I did a couple years ago. That's with all the horror show of Ferguson or Baltimore. There's some part of me that thinks it can't be sustained anymore with this much light. I think all the attention on race is a good thing.
I'm working with Ta-Nehisi Coates on a project, and there are very few writers I admire more than him right now. I read his book, and I said to myself, "Man, if I came up in Baltimore where he came up and had to walk on those corners and had to look at the police that way and had to live with that level of personal fear, not just of the police but of the corners and just sort of living in this other America where the rules are so different, I might write these [stories] differently."
I don't know. We're talking about things now that we wouldn't talk about two, three years ago. By the way, if we're still talking about it 10 years from now, I'll apologize.
I'm so known as a pessimist, that if I speak optimistically ...
William F. Zorzi:
It's certainly a lovely change of pace. Everything is so exhausting when it comes to this. Everything takes longer than it should. Everything has an unintended consequence, and everything is ripe for the demagogues. Everything that's true and right has to be misused 12 different ways first before it gets heard. It's not like we're healthy. I'm not saying we're healthy or anything like that.
On political polarization: "I don't know what you do when cash is arrayed against something that's human"
A lot of this miniseries seems to be about how a particular political issue becomes polarized. Is that polarization a natural offshoot of the way we govern ourselves?
Money and fear are the two currencies that bring out the worst in our political system. You're witnessing it now with just how much money is being tossed onto Capitol Hill to keep the entire government inert, to keep any solution from being expressly considered. Certain things get done because they make too much sense after a while, or because they're too shameful to not stop.
There is a Republican governor right now in Georgia [Nathan Deal], who is emptying the prisons and letting go of all of the nonviolent offenders, because they can't afford it. They can't afford this level of incarceration in the state of Georgia. In doing so, he's met a bunch of these guys that he's paroled, and he found out, "Holy shit, they're all pretty human after all."
Something where money is arrayed against it, like you want to try to give health care to everybody? Sorry, you're going to have to fight through $450 million in lobbying money before we even get started, and the rhetoric will become about death squads or death panels, because you're talking about money. There's cash involved. There's vested interest.
Right now I don't know what you do when cash is arrayed against something that's human. That's where I become very cynical about the way we structure our government now.
The miniseries starts out seeming like it's going to be a story of this mayor, Nick Wasicsko, but then it gets bigger and bigger and expands with every episode. Why did the story want to blossom like that?
At a certain point, the story of that Yonkers fight moves past Nick, and it becomes about things as improbable as the bureaucrats, the guys like Oscar Newman and Pete Smith, people who are usually denigrated in our political culture.
William F. Zorzi:
Bureaucrat is a dirty word.
Except I covered Baltimore, and [Bill] covered Baltimore government. How much respect do you have for the guys who actually knew their job and did it on the public wheel? There were a lot of people like that. Not everybody. When it's bad, it's bad, but when it's good, it's good, and at a price that should be worth a lot more, and it never is.
There comes a point at which the houses move forward. Nick pays the cost, but the houses move forward. We have to watch that, and we have to see who actually pushes it over the finish line and how. Also, how they made it work, because a lot of what was done with scattered site housing and defensible space in Yonkers was the archetype for what would work in public housing throughout the country in the ensuing years.
Everyone imagines public housing, and they think of Cabrini Green [in Chicago] or Lexington Terrace in Baltimore. They think of the failed policies of the '60s, '70s, stacking the poor up as much as you can. Actually, the government figured out some things that work and some things that don't. The transition in public housing is one of the quiet success stories of government. There comes a moment where, to tell the story, it becomes a little bit wider at the end, although Nick, what happens to him, is still driving a lot of the narrative.
I was very happy for that. I felt like it was a grown-up way of telling some truths rather than just having it be sort of pure narrative. When stories get complicated, that's when I think, "Well let's see if we can pull this off, because this would actually be different."
William F. Zorzi:
Most things are complicated.
They are complicated. If it's that simple and clean, it's probably not worth the time.
On how they adapted the book: "Real life ... is by and large anti-drama"
Bill, it sounds like this was a passion project for you. What drew you to this story?
William F. Zorzi:
The person who really deserves credit is Gail Mutrux [a longtime producer on Simon projects], who brought the book to David. David came to me and said, "Come here and eat off of my deli tray."
I was drawn in initially by Nick's story, just because I guess that's my background. I spent most of my time covering local and state politics. Especially after meeting the women who really did have heroic journeys in making that move from Schlobohm to these townhouses, I really fell in love with them and their characters. I guess that's one of the things that spurred me to write what I did.
This feels like it was taken as directly as possible from whatever historical records you have. How did you make reality conform to some sort of dramatic template?
It starts with Bill making reality the reality, which is to say the first drafts of the scripts were [Bill]. Maybe the first one we did together was a template, and the other five, Bill came behind me and wrote them up almost in as precise a narrative as he dared in the chronology of what happened from 1987 to 1994, using Nick's political life as the spine for the piece. [Then I would] argue him out of, "No Bill, we're not going to explain redistricting and why the council went from 13 seats down to seven."
William F. Zorzi:
That's very important, actually.
Yeah, Bill's still bitter about that. [Laughs.]
At a certain point, there can only be so much flesh on a skeleton before it can't stand up anymore. I can still have enough sense to know when we're supposed to have the journalist hat on, but it's my job also to take that hat off and throw the drama hat on and start shaving. There are moments where three meetings became two.
William F. Zorzi:
Two years' worth of meetings became four meetings.
You've got to remember, this case started in 1983 and was settled in '85.
William F. Zorzi:
1980 it was filed, actually.
Right, Carter administration. So five years litigating. We're coming into it [in the miniseries] in '87, two years after the judge issues a decision. It went on after '94 when we end. It went on in other facets, in affordable housing and school desegregation, until 2007.
Drama is shorthand for everything. There is nothing to be said about real life other than it is by and large anti-drama. It's drama with all the boring parts still stuck in it. If you've got 360 minutes, you've got to use them as best you can. That said, we tried not to misshape the characters or the events. In compressing them, we tried to get at the truth.
Show Me a Hero debuts on HBO Sunday, August 16, at 8 pm Eastern. It will air over three weeks.