Now that people are talking about HBO’s new “The Plot Against America,” David Simon’s powerful six-part adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel, I thought I’d mention another Simon favorite. It might make a nice coronavirus binge in the coming days.
“Show Me a Hero” is also a six-parter, and it ran on HBO in 2015. The subject matter sounds a bit dry and boring: It’s about 200 units of public housing in 1980s Yonkers, N.Y. But Simon, the creator of “The Wire,” “Treme,” “The Deuce,” and “The Corner,” manages to turn the story into an emotionally rich look at the workings of local politics and the racism that can infect it. Yonkers was ordered by a federal judge to build 200 low-income housing units in white neighborhoods, and that triggered ugly neighborhood protests and backroom deal-making.
The whole thing is told through the rough story of Nick Wasicsko (played movingly by Oscar Isaac), a Yonkers councilman and later mayor in the late 1980s. The title of the miniseries comes from the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy,” and the quote rings true throughout. Wasicsko’s political career gets pretty torn and frayed in the housing upheaval, all with his favorite Bruce Springsteen anthems in the background and Maalox mixed with vodka in his glass.
The miniseries is informed by Simon’s intelligence and definitely his outrage. Generally, he doesn’t pander to audiences who need to go to bed thinking we’re winning the war against government indifference, racism, drugs, and poverty. “The Wire” has been called “Dickensian,” but, while it did evoke Dickens in its social sprawl, from the homeless to the wealthy, it never relied on two Dickensian basics: sentimentality and neat, happy endings. Same here.