Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

David Simon’s tough-love TV

“Show Me a Hero” marks a return to form for its writer

Tom Shone | August 28th 2015

In just two years, Oscar Isaac has proven himself the most versatile screen actor to emerge from Hollywood in the last decade. He came to fame playing the self-absorbed folk musician at the heart of the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013). In the two years since, he has played a Greek con artist in the largely unseen but highly rewarding “Two Faces of January”, a Queens oil importer struggling to stay on the right side of the law in J.C. Chandor’s excellent “A Most Violent Year”, and a sleazy, tech-era Mephistopheles in Alex Garland’s equally excellent “Ex Machina”. In each case, he has pulled off assured, unshowy performances without a single whisper about his “commitment”, his “transformation” or his “unrecognisability”—or any of the other buzz words with which actors hold their own against ever more spectacular special effects: come see the movie star morph!

Isaac’s mutability is instead inbuilt. Of mixed Cuban, French and Guatemalan heritage, he could play almost any nationality on screen, or none. At 36, he can just as easily play someone in their 20s as in their 30s, and his morality seems equally unfixed. In another era, his sleepy, low-lidded eyes might have pegged him as an exotic matinee idol, in the mold of Omar Sharif or Rudolph Valentino. Today they lend him an air of quick calculation, which makes him good at playing selfish or ambitious men, and perfect for his role in David Simon’s new six-part series for HBO, “Show Me a Hero”. His character, Nick Wasicsko, is a young mayor who jams through enough votes to get desegregated public housing—housing, that is, for blacks from the projects—built in the middle of suburban Yonkers. It’s a task which, in Simon’s estimation, seems about as difficult as persuading a charging herd of rhinoceros to sit down and have a cup of tea with some wildebeest.

The series marks a return to form for Simon, whose last series, “Treme”, about post-Katrina New Orleans, celebrated its locale to the point of insiderishness, so much so that you felt guilty for watching it from the comfort of any couch north of Bourbon Street. Interestingly, “Show Me a Hero” spins the opposite tale, in which local loyalties are a viperish block to progress. We take it on trust that the desegregated housing—which has been mandated by a federal judge—is a Good Thing, but it is several episodes before we hear a single argument about why that might be so, let alone about the liberal values from which it proceeded. The judge from whom the decision comes is a delightfully priggish picture of disdain from Bob Balaban. You will wait the entire series for the speech in which someone says, “We did a good thing here, today, people.” It never comes.

Instead, we get scene after scene of working-class constituents crowding the council chambers, spitting, shouting and baying for blood over the decision. “That Jew judge ain’t gonna build that garbage nohow!” yells one, while a smirking Alfred Molina, playing a race-baiting councilman, sits back like a Brylcreemed toad as vote after vote against the measure succeeds, and the city racks up $1m a day in penalties. Nick is not the mayor when the series starts, just an ambitious 28-year-old councilman who actually votes to appeal the decision, is elected to office on account of it with alarming haste, and then performs a pragmatic U-turn. Simon and his director, Paul Haggis, who directed the 2004 Oscar-winner “Crash”, frame his career as if it were a descent into a flaming cauldron whose only variable is the precise temperature it will reach. You can almost see the relief on the face of the outgoing mayor, played by Jim Belushi. “This will eat him alive,” observes an NACCP lawyer.

And so it proves. Based on a 1999 non-fiction book of the same name by Lisa Belkin, and co-written by Simon’s former Baltimore Sun colleague William F. Zorzi, the series takes its title from a quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy.” Needless to say, it shows you neither, except ironically. Mixing offices and courtrooms with the projects, where single moms haul kids past crack vials, the series marks a return to the impassioned, multi-tiered social realism of “The Wire”, in which no good deed goes unpunished and the only bad guys are institutions. You can spend a lot of time trying to prize apart Simon’s compassion and cynicism, but in his best work they are indistinguishable, and even storylines that threaten to sag are enlivened by Haggis’s eye for niceties: the way a visiting black council member is careful to brush crumbs from his white host’s table; or the way a black woman, entertaining a white guest, saves a chipped coffee cup for herself.

The actors flourish, Isaac most of all, swigging Maalox for his ulcers like it’s fruit juice. “This mayor thing—when does the fun part start?” he asks. Be warned: his fall from grace, scrambling for power that has already left the building, is awful to behold. Equally good are the Argentine actress playing his wife, Carla Quevedo, who communicates loyalty with her entire body, and a wonderfully dissolute Winona Ryder as Nick’s boozy fellow council member and confidant, speaking in a cracked, rattling voice in which you can hear all her heartbreak, as she’s eaten up by politics from the inside out. And yet the show is not a downer. Entirely void of the self-conscious, slightly jejune pessimism to which shows like “True Detective”, “Hannibal” and “House of Cards” can be prone, “Show Me a Hero” is not out to flatter its audience with woozy, look-into-your-heart-of-darkness, bad-boy fantasy. Simon lacks the flatterer’s instinct. He makes tough-love TV: blunt, compassionate, adult, alert.

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.