David Simon, who created the HBO series "The Wire" and "Treme," is back with a magnificent new miniseries, "Show Me a Hero," which premieres Sunday on HBO.
Set in Yonkers, N.Y., in the late 1980s and early '90s and starring Oscar Isaac as an ambitious, embattled young politician, it bears all the hallmarks of the Simon style — the exploration of place through character and of character as an expression of place; naturalistic acting and dialogue; intercut multiple story lines that make the pace feel leisurely in its parts and propulsive overall; and a propensity to ask questions rather than to fix answers.
Written by Simon and longtime colleague William F. Zorzi — they worked together at the Baltimore Sun, and Zorzi later wrote for "The Wire" — and directed in its entirety by Paul Haggis ("Crash"), the series takes its substance and characters from a 1999 book by then-New York Times reporter Lisa Belkin; the title quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald — "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy." (In the series, a newspaper reporter pronounces and explains the line, which is just the sort of disillusioned thing reporters in the talking pictures say.)
Belkin's book — which Simon first pitched to HBO in 2001 and which Zorzi spent years re-reporting — tells the story of the Yonkers housing case. Sued in 1980 by the Department of Justice and the local branch of the NAACP over segregated schools and housing, the city was under court order to build 200 low-income and 800 affordable units in white, middle-class neighborhoods.
Belkin's central character, and the series', is Nick Wasicsko, who in 1987 at the age of 28 became the city's mayor. More pawn than player, he had the bad luck to find himself in authority just as the judge running the case (Bob Balaban) decided Yonkers had dragged its feet long enough. Resistance to integration turned ugly.
"I always wanted to be the mayor," Nick tells Nay Noe (Carla Quevedo), the City Hall worker he is beginning to court just as he is beginning to campaign. "I used to talk about it all the time growing up. The other kids used to call me 'The Mayor.' It wasn't a compliment. I tried to take it as one."
Isaac plays Nick with a kind of restless, reckless innocence that makes his pride and ambition charming to start and less so later on, as innocence begins to look more like naivete and dedication shades into neediness. The filmmakers don't feel the need to sentimentalize his character or argue his case — to make him into a martyr.
But they clearly feel his pain, as early success makes failure later hard to handle. "If I'm not the mayor of Yonkers," he will ask Nay, "will you still love me?"
The thicket of friends and nemeses that surrounds Nick allows for fine performances by, among others, Winona Ryder as Nick's fellow council member and confidant; Jim Belushi as the mayor Nick unseats; Alfred Molina as the councilman who challenges him in turn; Jon Bernthal as an NAACP lawyer; and Peter Riegert and Clarke Peters as housing consultants.
Out in the neighborhoods, the major characters are all women. LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Natalie Paul, Ilfenesh Hadera and Dominique Fishback are housing project residents who embody different aspects of upward, downward and lateral mobility, of excitement for or resistance to change. And Catherine Keener plays a white opponent of the housing plan who … well, spoilers, you know.
The series is structured, obviously — there are foreshadowings and parallel action and Bruce Springsteen songs placed just so — without seeming obviously structured. A sort of overture juxtaposing images of the poorer and richer Yonkers is the simplest kind of cinematic rhetoric, yet it creates a great sense of occasion and anticipation. You feel something big is coming.
Although much of the time a story set in offices, meeting rooms and courtrooms — it's like a procedural drama, about the drama of procedure — it isn't ever dry. There are some superbly mounted, loud, crowded big scenes — Simon is a great orchestrator of chaos — but there is an intensity to the quieter, more private moments as well.
I wouldn't trade it for a bushel barrel of tortured detectives or all the kings and queens in Westeros. It feels like a film from the 1970s as well as one set partly within it. This is not a series for everyone, but in a better world, it would be.
It's not journalism, and it isn't exactly impartial. Broadly speaking, Simon is on the side of bringing the marginalized in from the margins; for good neighbors against bad ones and for principled or at least efficient public servants over rabble-rousing, self-approving loudmouths.
But he is interested in all these people, how they are and how they do and don't get along. Being human, the worst of them has something of value to share, no less than the best.
'Show Me a Hero'
When: 8 p.m. Sunday