TELEVISION
Show Me a Hero:
A Surprisingly Thrilling Civics Lesson

Oscar Isaac as NIck Wasicsko in the HBO series Show Me a Hero (Image © HBO). 

Oscar Isaac as NIck Wasicsko in the HBO series Show Me a Hero (Image © HBO). 

Perhaps the most important scene in HBO’s miniseries Show Me a Hero, created by David Simon and William F. Zorzi, occurs when urban planner Oscar Newman explains why low income housing must be set up in a way so there aren’t any open, nebulous spaces. When there’s courtyards, places where ownership isn’t clear, drugs and gangs can thrive, he argues. Therefore, low income housing should be set up in the exact same way middle class houses are.

    NAACP lawyer Mike Sussman replies this will only result in more feuding because it means the Yonkers government will have to pay more for the housing project, a project they’re already resistant to (to put it very, very mildly).

    Newman does not relent. He explains that for this project to be a success, it must be done right.

    Therein lies a key part of the bureaucratic problem, only one of many problems facing the low income housing project in 1980s Yonkers. As much the government might be willing to create some public housing, if it is not done properly, and with money, the project will be a failure. However, the government’s unwillingness to spend on issues related to poverty thanks to conservative economics mixed with a public that is still incredibly racist means it is hard to pull off low income housing in a form that has lasting change.

    This is a tragic shame, because there have been many success stories with affordable housing, such as in New Jersey: crime did not increase, nor did property values fall. The National Association of Realtors has an informative page on low income housing; housing studies overwhelmingly show that property values do not decrease and crime does not skyrocket. Believe it or not, people who move into low income housings actually want a better life where they and their families can prosper. There have been a few outliers, but those can be explained by either poor planning or the fact that property values were already decreasing (many low income housing project get placed in area where property values are already decreasing, hence setting up a misconception).

    In terms of rising crime, there isn’t much of a likelihood of this occurring in any middle class area since middle class communities are policed in a different fashion from low income areas, especially low income areas that are non-white. David Simon’s first HBO drama, The Wire, explored this issue, as did FX’s The Shield (albeit, in their own distinct ways). Low income areas are policed in a more militaristic style, where the citizens are viewed as an enemy that must be subdued, while middle class areas are policed in a defensive style, where the citizens are viewed as people who must be protected. The former style of policing has only helped increase poverty, drugs, and violence.

    Therefore, the argument that low income housing in a middle class community will automatically result in a rise in violent crime is an argument that ignores the very different ways the police treat citizens of different classes. If people are worried that the police will change tactics should low income housing be built then that is more of an argument against certain policing styles than it is against low income housing.

    With all of this in mind, the discussions on how to handle low income housing become more nuanced. Or, at least, they should.

    Simon’s miniseries, however, shows that rational thought vanishes in the blink of an eye when the issue of race comes up. One of the main arguments the detractors have in Show Me a Hero is not about crime or property values; it’s about culture.

    Catherine Keener’s Mary Dorman, a leading figure in the anti-housing movement in Yonkers, repeatedly tells others that she’s not racist; it’s simply that black Americans live differently and they shouldn’t be mixed in with people like her who live a different lifestyle. Dorman is correct, but not in the way she wants to be. The people who would move into low income housing do have a different lifestyle, but it’s one of poverty and it’s not of their own choosing.

    The real life Mary Dorman came close to admitting to The New York Times that her worries of black Americans living some sort of different, incompatible life were misguided: “‘In a sense, the desegregation plan did work,’ she added. ‘It didn’t spoil our neighborhoods; we had a lot of nice people who lived there. It wasn’t the horror that we all thought it was going to be.’”

    Simon does not use Show Me a Hero to just show the political side of the housing battle. He also gives viewers a look at those who might benefit from low income housing, such as LaTanya Richardson Jackson’s Norma O’Neal, a black woman in her late 40s who is losing her eyesight to diabetes.

    Jackson’s quiet performance is one of Show Me a Hero’s best. Norma’s loss of sight requires her to use an aide, but the aides often do not come, fearing the neighborhood she lives in. Norma’s son despairs, but Norma seems to understand, to almost expect, this outcome. When a friend brings up the idea of moving to the new low income housing units, Norma is doubtful, believing she won’t fit in. Unlike Mary’s comments, though, there is a sense of despair in Norma’s voice because she knows that where she is now isn’t working out well for her. A home in a more navigable area would be optimal, but she’s well aware of the anger surrounding the new housing units and doesn’t want to put herself into that. Who can blame her?

    Joining Simon and Zorzi in crafting Show Me a Hero is director Paul Haggis, who also directed the divisive film Crash. His importance on this project cannot be understated. Consider: HBO has a show set in a fantasy world where zombies are slowly marching down from the north and dragons are coming from the east; HBO has a show set in a world where 2% of the world’s population vanishes in the blink of an eye; HBO has a show that tackles a different crime every season in weird and wild ways; HBO had a documentary miniseries earlier this year revolving around an insane rich man who killed multiple people and admitted it in the documentary itself.

    Do you think HBO viewers are going to be excited by the prospect of watching a show set in 1980s Yonkers where the main plot revolves around housing discrimination? Simon’s last show, The Wire, at least had the police angle to grab viewers, yet that show still consistently got low ratings. Simon likes to tackle social issues that aren’t necessarily sexy but are important to the community’s fabric.

    Still, to get his message across, and by this point it is hopefully apparent just how important the message is, he needs to create watchable, engaging television. His and Zorzi’s work with character and dialogue goes a long way, but Haggis’ direction keeps the momentum going while not losing the viewer’s understanding. The latter is an especially difficult task considering the miniseries takes place over years. It’s Haggis’ job to orient the audience despite the passage of time. A montage in the fourth episode shows Oscar Isaac’s Nick Wasicsko lounging at home after losing reelection and deciding to take up odd jobs around the house in an effort to distract himself from his electoral loss. This montage serves to both establish Wasicsko’s state of mind and to show how the months are advancing before returning the viewer to the new political leadership.

    Haggis also works to make governmental meetings exciting, a near herculean task. The last television show that managed to make politics interesting on its own (even The Wire’s politics, while interesting, were centered in a show where people got shot on a fairly regular basis) was The West Wing, and in that case the politics were on the presidential level and therefore had a built-in level of urgency. It also used the “walk and talk” method, wherein two characters walk through rooms as they speak, adding yet another level of urgency because it implies the characters are heading towards a specific location with a mission in mind (they rarely were unless one counts sitting back at their desk a mission). There is nothing wrong with The West Wing’s approach, but it wouldn’t work with Simon’s reporter-style of storytelling. Instead, Haggis uses close ups and reaction shots in order to give government meetings a faster pace. Take a look at any scene with Alfred Molina’s Hank Spallone, an out-and-out racist. His facial expressions during discussions are both hilarious and infuriating, but never dull.

    In later episodes, Haggis adds another factor: sound, an underutilized device for escalating tension (great horror movies, like The Haunting, use sound to fantastic effect, but other genres often forget its importance). Many of the government meetings take place with the public present and the public is absolutely enraged by the idea of low income housing. They shout over the politicians and Haggis acknowledges this by often muffling what the politicians are saying. A lesser show would try and have it both ways, but Haggis uses the chaos to his benefit.

    A key instance of this occurs when the public is outside, in near riot condition, and even though Wasicsko is in a quiet room, the audience can hear the crowd, their shouts growing steadier and steadier.

    Simon, Zorzi, and Haggis have taken on quite the task in trying to make a series that both indicts much of America and revolves around the detailed, technical idea of low income housing. It’s a laudable and important approach and if it failed it would still be a worthy effort (that which aims high and misses is always better than that which aims low and manages to hit the target).

    Yet the show doesn’t fail. Critics have praised it to the heavens. The audience hasn’t been large, but thanks to HBO’s increased efforts to promote its streaming service, the audience doesn’t have to be because the miniseries will always be available to stream. Over the next few years, viewers will still be diving into Show Me a Hero’s honest and brutal depiction of racism in America and it’s clear the issues brought up in the miniseries are as important as ever.