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HBO's Show Me a Hero turns the long, grinding work of government into gripping television

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Oscar Isaac (center) plays the embattled mayor of Yonkers, Nick Wasicsko, in the tremendous Show Me a Hero.
Oscar Isaac (center) plays the embattled mayor of Yonkers, Nick Wasicsko, in the tremendous Show Me a Hero.
HBO

Early in Show Me a Hero, HBO's towering new miniseries from several alumni of The Wire that debuted August 16 and airs over three weeks, one government official says that he's fine with the construction of housing projects, but, "Not in my backyard."

The others gathered chuckle knowingly at what he's just said, how he's invoked the idea of NIMBY directly, in the very words it stands for. It's a wink from the show to all of the wonks in its audience — we're on your side. We know this stuff backward and forward, and you can trust in us.

But it's also an indication of the miniseries' approach to storytelling in general. As its central topic, Show Me a Hero has taken the idea of housing desegregation — a hot-button issue in the late 20th century that almost never comes up today — and it casts its net so wide that in later episodes, it feels like everybody in the city of Yonkers, New York, is one of its characters.

Rating


5


All of this should contribute to a miniseries that suffers from dullness and bloat, but Show Me a Hero always feels thrillingly alive and attuned to the way that all politics is personal. "Not in my backyard" stops being a concept and becomes something driven by raw, human emotion, and that makes it all the more powerful when wounds begin to heal. Later in the series, one character tells another that "votes aren't love," but it's not hard to see why these people can get confused on the matter. They put everything they have into these seemingly tiny, local issues, and when they come out the other side, they're different — at once more hopeful and more beaten down.

Here are the five elements that combine to make Show Me a Hero one of the year's very best TV programs.

1) William F. Zorzi and David Simon's scripts offer sturdy, passionate realism

David Simon and Paul Haggis work on Show Me A Hero.

David Simon, right, collaborates on Show Me a Hero with director Paul Haggis.

HBO

David Simon is best known as the creator of The Wire (on which William F. Zorzi also worked), but he's also terrific at the miniseries form, having previously worked on The Corner and Generation Kill for HBO. Both were big, epic stories about corners of American policy (the war on drugs; the Iraq War) that television rarely dared explore. Simon's gift for finding the human story amid the bureaucracy served all of these projects well.

What Simon and Zorzi have done in Show Me a Hero is perhaps even more impressive. They've taken a gigantic, sprawling case with few clear heroes or villains, based on an issue few Americans think about anymore, and made it immediate and piercing. The city of Yonkers spent much of the 1980s attempting to avoid building affordable housing for the city's lower-income residents, even though the federal government had ordered the city to do so.

When Show Me a Hero begins, the city has run out of stall tactics and has to simply start putting up the units — but public opinion is fiercely opposed to the new houses, and politicians have never met a divisive issue they couldn't exploit.

Simon and Zorzi's gift for boiling down gigantic topics serves them well here. You might not always be clear on just where the city stands in regards to the projects, but you always understand the emotional toll the constant, wearying fight is having on the series' main characters, particularly young Mayor Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac — more on him in a moment).

Most stories are about people who are trying to get something done. Show Me a Hero is about a bunch of people pushing either with or against an inevitability as it slowly rolls downhill. That should be stultifying, but Simon and Zorzi make it electrifying.

2) Paul Haggis's direction captures the emotional mood of Yonkers perfectly

Show Me a Hero

Haggis handles the crowd scenes particularly well.

HBO

Paul Haggis gets ridden down a lot for directing Crash, an undeserved Oscar Best Picture winner if ever there was one. But his other work in television and film has been mostly superlative, and Show Me a Hero is no exception. There are sequences in this miniseries as well-directed as anything in his career, especially when city council meetings threaten to turn into full-scale riots as the housing projects move forward and the people of Yonkers make their displeasure known.

In particular, pay attention to how often Haggis frames shots so that characters seem hemmed in by the other objects in their space. Their only choices are a bunch of bad ones, and they can't find a way forward that doesn't involve struggle, pain, and heartache. Haggis also makes elegant, brilliant use of close-ups, particularly in the series' final two hours, which focus constantly on Isaac's face as he seizes at every opportunity that comes his way but can't seem to stop spiraling into despair.

Haggis also uses a unique mirroring structure that depicts characters coming apart in early installments, then shows — in similar shots, no less — those same characters coming back together. The healing of Yonkers has to begin in living rooms and private conversations, not in city council chambers. Haggis highlights this, both as a way for the story to reach its conclusion and as a way for us to understand how healing can happen in our own world.

3) Oscar Isaac is one of the best actors working today

Oscar Isaac stars in Show Me a Hero.

Oscar Isaac plays Mayor Nick Wasicsko in Show Me a Hero.

HBO

Anything you throw at Isaac, he can play. Whether he's the coulda-been folk music star and misanthrope at the center of Inside Llewyn Davis or a tech genius with a dark secret in Ex Machina, Isaac makes that character feel full-fledged and completely human. Given six hours to work with here, he turns Nick Wasicsko into a walking examination of how some driven people use their work to stand in for the big, central questions about themselves that they've never dared answer or even ask.

It's not hard to learn about the arc of Nick's career. (Indeed, you can read all about it on Wikipedia.) Isaac's gift is the way he simultaneously plays to those who know this story well and to those who have no idea. In his hands, Nick becomes somebody who's driven by demons even he barely understands until he has no choice but to stare them in the eye.

Nick is always at the center of Show Me a Hero, but he's not always the story's most important character. Isaac turns this potential flaw into an asset, as he keeps trying to throw himself back toward relevance, only to learn that things have passed him by. And, finally, he leaves open the question of just who Nick — who ran for mayor on a platform of stopping the housing projects from happening, then grudgingly threw them his support when he realized the city had no other options — is and just how "heroic" he was. Show Me a Hero argues that most of our American heroes are just people who were pragmatic enough to support important social change slightly before public opinion did. The "Great Man" theory of history is a misnomer. It's more like a series of people who realize which way the wind is blowing and start heading that direction.

4) The rest of the cast is pretty great, too

Catherine Keener stars in Show Me a Hero.

Catherine Keener plays a pivotal role in Show Me a Hero.

HBO

Everywhere you look in Show Me a Hero, there's another ringer (or two or three). The always great Catherine Keener stops in as a woman virulently opposed to the housing projects who finds herself beginning to soften as she meets some of the people who will be living in them. Winona Ryder is here as one of Nick's best friends in local government, while Alfred Molina plays his greatest political foe. Wire veteran Clarke Peters pops up in a pivotal role in later episodes.

But it's just as important to note the many actors here who aren't as well known, like Dominique Fishback as a young mother struggling with the proper role her children's father should play in her life, or LaTanya Richardson Jackson as a blind woman living in the projects and struggling to keep her head above water.

One of the very best things about Show Me a Hero is the way it keeps pulling back to reveal new layers to its story and new characters worth caring about in every episode. This isn't just a story about the lawmakers. It's also a story about their constituents, and the people who will be helped by the new housing, and their friends and family. It's a story not about a bunch of politicians, but about the city they serve.

5) The surprisingly optimistic tone genuinely believes in government's ability to do good

Show Me a Hero

Mayor Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac, center) goes over plans for new housing projects in Yonkers in the miniseries Show Me a Hero.

HBO

"Show me a hero, and I'll write you a tragedy," goes the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote that gives the miniseries (and the Lisa Belkin book it's based on) its name. And that certainly applies to various figures within Show Me a Hero. But the overall tone of the miniseries is optimistic — and deeply certain of government's ability to do good for the people it serves if it wants to badly enough.

The simple fact of the matter is that the projects in Yonkers end up being a good thing. They bring together a community riven by division, and they cause those who might look upon each other with suspicion to see with new eyes. And that's even before you consider the affordable, livable housing they provided to people who desperately needed just such a thing.

Simon and Haggis's past work has been marked by an occasional pessimism about America's ability to do anything worth doing, but Show Me a Hero argues, at the end, that sometimes it's as simple as sitting down with another person on common ground, to talk more about what you have in common than what divides you. And, the series argues, there is no greater task of government than this — to come to the people it represents, hat in hand, and ask, "How can we help?"

Join me at noon Eastern for our weekly culture chat. Leave questions for me in comments.

We can talk about Hero or any other cultural topics of note! Did you see and love any movies this weekend? What are you reading? What's your album of the moment? Let's talk.

Show Me a Hero airs Sundays at 8 pm Eastern through August 30 on HBO. You can watch the first two installments on HBO Go and HBO Now.