Show Me a Hero August 16, 23, 30, 8 p.m., HBO.
HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero dramatizes a fight over housing desegregation in Yonkers, New York, with white residents and politicians vehemently opposing a court-ordered program to build 200 units of low-income housing in predominantly white neighborhoods. You might imagine that this happened in the wake of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but the events depicted in Hero took place in the late ’80s and early ’90s, as part of a case that wasn’t settled until 2007.
The Wire creator David Simon takes a typically meticulous approach to the material, based on Lisa Belkin’s 1999 nonfiction book, and at its best Hero is like an entire series built around the city hall intrigue on The Wire. At the center of that intrigue is Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), elected Yonkers mayor (and the youngest big-city mayor in the country) just as the housing battle is reaching its crescendo. Caught between angry constituents and an intractable judge who threatens to bankrupt the city if it doesn’t comply, Wasicsko ends up doing the right thing by default, essentially killing his political career in the process.
When it focuses on the tragedy of Nick Wasicsko, Hero is fascinating, with Simon and co-writer William F. Zorzi tying together the personal and the political in an intelligent and often heartbreaking way. But the series is less successful when it comes to the various supporting characters, despite a top-notch cast that includes Alfred Molina, Winona Ryder and Catherine Keener, among others. Simon and Zorzi have the most trouble with one of the former’s typical strengths: stories of everyday people caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Hero’s depictions of public-housing residents are full of clichés, from drug abuse to unwed motherhood, and those characters never end up fully realized.
The direction from filmmaker Paul Haggis (Crash, Third Person) can be heavy-handed at times (especially in its overuse of Bruce Springsteen songs), although not nearly as much as in Haggis’ movies. Like all of Simon’s work, Hero aims to tell a uniquely American story, to shine a harsh light on injustice and the people affected by it. More often than not, it manages to do just that.