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David Simon Back on HBO with 'Show Me a Hero' - And It's Another Must-See Drama
August 16, 2015  | By David Bianculli

On Sunday, HBO presents the latest drama from The Wire creator David Simon. Not surprisingly, it’s complex, thought-provoking, meaningful – and very entertaining…

Show Me a Hero is a six-hour miniseries based on the nonfiction book by Lisa Belkin. HBO is rolling it out in double doses: Two episodes back-to-back Sunday nights at 9 over three consecutive weeks. Make it a point to watch, because this story, though taking place in the late Eighties and early Nineties, contains depressing echoes of what’s happening in America in the racial divisions and political circuses of the summer of 2015.

On its surface, Show Me a Hero sounds like a drama that only a policy wonk could love. It’s about local politics – specifically, in Yonkers, NY, from 1987-93, and centers on a somewhat idealistic young politician, Nick Wasicsko, who is approached to run for mayor of Yonkers against a powerful incumbent in the coming election.

But as anyone who watched Simon’s The Wire or Treme well knows, local politics and policies can be the stuff of high drama, especially when those policies are not only negotiated and argued for by those in office, but either embraced or rejected by its wildly diverse citizenry.

Simon got his start after his newspaper reporting for The Baltimore Sun, on local politics and crime, led to a nonfiction book (right) that, in turn, led to a fabulous TV show called Homicide: Life on the Street, overseen by Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson. All these years later, he’s returning the favor: Belkin was a New York Times reporter whose Simon-like obsession with details and societal problems led to her Show Me a Hero nonfiction book – which Simon has shepherded in its path from book to TV miniseries.

Simon’s primary partners, this time around, are co-writer William F. Zorzi (a Wire contributor), director Paul Haggis (the film writer-director whose previous forays into TV include two standout favorites, the quirky Due South and the dour EZ Streets), and the star of Show Me a Hero, Oscar Isaac.

Isaac is the actor who rose to prominence portraying the title role in Inside Llewyn Davis, brilliantly portraying a folksinger in New York in the early Sixties. His immersion into the role of Nick Wasicsko is just as total, and just as impressive. Wasicsko’s highs and lows as he traverses the treacherous waters of local New York politics are varied and extreme, and Isaac makes you feel all of them, even when the emotions are conflicted and not always flattering. The reason he’s asked to run in the mayoral race, it turns out, is because the backroom political bosses want him on the ballot as a straw man so the incumbent mayor will coast to yet another victorious term – yet while Wasicsko questions the wisdom of running, he also is vain and ambitious enough to think he might have a chance.

And the reason the mayor, played with credible depth and weariness and likability by Jim Belushi, may indeed be vulnerable is because Yonkers, in 1987, is as bitterly divided as its racially bifurcated city. The whites live mostly on one side, the blacks on another, and a federal judge has ruled Yonkers in contempt of proper placement of government-mandated public housing. Local politicians are ordered to select low-income housing sites that will integrate the city, an issue that brings to the streets protesters from both sides.

If that long, drawn-out fight from more than 20 years ago, to enforce some sort of racial equality and fair treatment, seems too distant to matter, think of current and recent headlines to realize how little some things have changed. That’s also true of a blustery, confrontational local politician with a self-satisfied smirk, played well by Alfred Molina – a virtual previous-generation stand-in for today’s headline-grabbing presidential candidate, Donald Trump.

In addition to Isaac, Belushi and Molina, the other actors in Show Me a Hero all bring passion, clarity and believability to their roles. Some fit into them easily: Bob Balaban as a judge who’s far too weary of political gamesmanship, Winona Ryder as one of the few local women pols in what, in the late Seventies, still was largely a man’s game, and LaTanya Richardson as one of several local residents whose lives are impacted by the proposed housing plans. Others are all but unrecognizable. Catherine Keener, as a gray-haired white resident initially passionate in her opposition to the integration plan, disappears into her character completely – and Peter Riegert, hidden under an imposing beard, is a player you can barely identify without a scorecard.

They’re all excellent, as are others in this large ensemble drama. And almost every one of them goes through significant changes, either emotionally or professionally – none more so than Isaac’s Wasicsko, whose true-life story, retold here, should be more than enough of an attention-getting acting performance to earn Isaac an Emmy nomination next year.

And Show Me a Hero, for Simon and company, should be right there with him.

(For my full review of Show Me a Hero on NPR’s  Fresh Air with Terry Gross, listen Friday on the radio, or visit the Fresh Air websitestarting late Friday afternoon.)
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