By Will Ferrer
While minimalism is not an inevitable death sentence in television – whole episodes of NBC’s brilliant “Friday Night Lights” revolve around little more than sparse dialogue and in-the-moment camera work – David Simon’s “Show Me a Hero” is so mired in the inherent importance of its subject matter that it forgets to inhabit it’s politically charged world with living, breathing characters. Directed by Paul Haggis, the latest miniseries from HBO captures the considerable hullabaloo surrounding the Yonkers housing crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s (in which a federal judge ruled in favor of the construction of 200 low-income housing units in a number of predominantly white neighborhoods) while simultaneously charting the rise and fall of amateur politico Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac). Both topical and timely, “Show Me a Hero” is certainly a show that needs to be made, but more importantly it’s a show that deserves to be made right. Here, Simon and Haggis’s efforts come to naught.
The year is 1988. Nick Wasicsko, a 28-year old ex-cop, has just defeated incumbent Angelo Martinelli to become mayor of Yonkers, New York. As mayor, Wasicsko faces the dubious task of uniting a broken city, savagely divided by the aforementioned housing dilemma. Most of Wasicsko’s council colleagues play hard ball – concerned about election prospects – and Wasicsko flounders under the immense pressure. Years pass, the clash over affordable housing persists, and Wasicsko – young, uncertain and tenaciously dedicated to the authority of the law – gets caught in a merciless maelstrom of bureaucracy and bigotry that rages onward without hope of relief.
Glacially paced and flat as a board, “Show Me a Hero” is destined to be described as a “slow burn” by many a critic, but no amount of calculated euphemisms can mask the unfortunate reality that, in its bloated 6-hour run time, this rare misfire from David Simon (“The Wire”) and the folks over at HBO is (*braces for the vitriol*) completely and utterly uninspired. Certainly intended to be some sort of auteuristic exercise in realistic minimalism, “Show Me a Hero” is puritanical in its adherence to the facts, refusing to excise even the most minor of details – including, but not limited to, a series of riveting encounters in which Nick says nothing while white people yell things at loud volumes. How many times, you ask, does a mob of middle class xenophobes have to scream Bloody Mary in a courtroom before we get the sense that white Yonkers is violently racist? The answer is once. Fortunately for us, this little scene plays out 10 or 12 more times over the duration of the program, because to overlook a single moment of squabbling would no doubt be complete and utter blasphemy.
This tedium, however, isn’t even the program’s most troublesome issue. For some intangible reason, Simon and Haggis seem to have reached an agreement that unadulterated realism is of greater significance than anything resembling engaging character exploration. Beneath the poorly realized political machinations of this pretentious and half-baked miniseries lies a cast of diverse and important figures who deserve far more attention than an irritating political upstart who just happened to be in a position of power during a major historical crisis.
A hardworking mother from the Dominican Republic (Ilfenesh Hadera’s Alma Febles), a woman struggling with drug addiction and caring for a young child (Natalie Paul’s Doreeen Henderson): Despite the obvious clichés, the stories of these seemingly minor players in the Yonkers political sphere are of intrinsic import and interest, but, under Haggis’s direction, said women (and others like them) amount to little more than lazy stakes, tangential cutaways from The Nick Wasicsko Show meant to illicit cheap sympathy and swift identification. For Simon and Haggis, these characters are checkboxes, returning periodically to remind us that they have not been written out, only granted some pitiable semblance of depth when they can appear miserable, stressed or preferably some combination of the two. They are, in essence, casualties of Simon’s evident fascination with Wasicsko. The problem: Wasicsko is not nearly as engaging as Simon thinks.
Oscar Isaac is an exceptional performer, but with Simon and Haggis calling the shots, Wasicsko is scummy as a snake, clueless as a guppy and annoying as only the most persistent of hangovers. Simon and Haggis’s Wasicsko supports the housing initiative not because it’s the right thing to do, but because he believes he has no other choice; he wolfishly kisses his soon-to-be wife (Carla Quevedo) on their first date despite audible protests; and, most gratingly, he actually dupes himself into believing that his flimsy (and 11th hour) support of the construction project is valorous, not expected. Simply put, the Wasicsko of “Show Me a Hero” is a dirt bag. Yet this hollow shell of a man remains our disagreeable surrogate for all six of the series’ one-hour segments. An underdeveloped product of our thoughtless obsession with all things anti-heroic, Wasicko has no business carrying the hefty burden of such a prestigious television series. No, the man does not have to be perfect – I can, in fact, appreciate a character with flaws – but, my God, does he have to be so insufferably dumb?
Coincidentally, Paul Haggis has no business attempting to carry a television series either. The man behind the polarizing Academy Award winner “Crash” and the so-bad-it’s-delightful “Third Person,” Haggis seems to have rolled the cameras in focus… and that’s about as far as his notable contributions go. Haggis’s aesthetic tendencies are flat and uninteresting (he has a rather irksome habit of filming intimate conversations from afar) and the closest thing to a stylistic “flourish” comes in the form of brief jump cuts during the show’s myriad courtroom battles. Coupled with a predilection for realism, this visual sameness leaves the actors’ floundering in unoccupied space and few, if any, rise to the challenge.
So often during the series’ six episode run I found myself dying to feel something – anything. I wanted to feel like crying when Alma was denied her chance at a better life. I wanted to feel like shouting obscenities when the detestable Hank Spallone (Alfred Molina) was elected mayor of Yonkers. I wanted to feel like punching Nick in the face when a dumb move cost his wife her job. But alas, no amount of wanting can bring the dead to life – especially when Haggis appears so determined to let this cadaver run cold: Music is alarmingly absent from “Show Me a Hero” (save for the occasional and obvious Bruce Springsteen track). Yes, a sub-par score can be a crutch, but an excellent score can be a hail Mary for a lost cause, injecting emotion into hollow and empty proceedings. It’s as if Haggis isn’t even trying. Lamentable and unfortunate, this indolent fondness for stylistic nothingness deals a major blow to an already crippled miniseries.
“Show Me a Hero” inherently possesses the profound potential to make an impact. Racism is as rampant as ever in this supposedly “modern” country and the show’s message – that we are still fighting the same battles we fought years ago – is vitally important. Part of fixing a broken system is recognizing a problem – an act of which we remain seriously incapable even in the face of repulsive hate crimes and heinous acts of domestic terrorism – and, like it or not, television remains one of the most accessible and persuasive of art forms. Sadly, “Show Me a Hero” squanders these prospects of influence, mistaking realism and anti-heroes for high art. While the subject matter is fascinating – many condescending critics continue to act as if television viewers haven’t the brains to watch anything that’s not “Game of Thrones” – in the execution, Simon and Haggis manage to bury an essential cultural dialogue beneath a whole lot of empty ennui.
“Show Me a Hero” debuts its first two parts back-to-back Sunday, Aug.16 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT), followed by two parts on both of the subsequent Sundays – Aug. 23 and 30 – at the same time.
Contact Will Ferrer at wferrer ‘at’ stanford.edu.