Review: Oscar Isaac shines in David Simon’s ‘Show Me a Hero’

David Simon is the resident civics professor of American cable drama, with projects like “The Wire,” “The Corner,” “Generation Kill,” and “Tremé” offering thoughtful takes on the drug war, the Iraq invasion, New Orleans post-Katrina, and the generally rotten state of urban America. He is a TV producer by trade, consciousness-raiser by passion, and journalist at his core, and the showmanship side of the job has always come across as a necessary evil for him. He's glad that “Wire” fans came to love Omar and Bubbles and Wallace, but if they didn't grasp the larger lesson he was trying to teach, then what was the point?

But he's also understood that his work needs a spoonful of Stringer to make the medicine go down. “The Wire” may be a powerful commentary on policing, politics, and so much more, but it's also a cracking piece of entertainment, as are all of Simon's projects on some level or another. (Even the wildly uncommercial “Tremé” had the formal rhythms of the very jazz performers and lovers whose stories he chronicled.)

Simons's gifts as an entertainer, and those of his collaborators – co-writer William F. Zorzi, director Paul Haggis, and, especially, star Oscar Isaac – are put to an extreme test with “Show Me a Hero,” an HBO miniseries debuting Sunday night at 8. (It'll air two episodes each Sunday for three straight weeks; I've seen all six.) It's essentially a six-hour lecture on zoning regulations, municipal codes, and why integration remained such a thorny issue long after the civil rights era of the '60s.

But if it's a lecture, it's an engaging, emotional, and surprisingly light on its feet one.

The title, from the non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin that Simon and Zorzi adapted, is part of a famous line by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Show me a hero, and I'll write you a tragedy.” Our hero in this case is Nick Wasicsko (Isaac), a politician in Yonkers, NY, a small city practically within spitting distance of Manhattan. In 1987, Nick became the youngest mayor in America, defeating longtime incumbent Angelo Martinelli (Jim Belushi) by promising to appeal a court order to build affordable housing, intended primarily for tenants of color, on the predominantly white side of town. The city was angry, Nick tapped into that anger, and then discovered almost immediately upon taking office that the appeal was denied, and that the judge in the case (Bob Balaban) was willing to fine Yonkers into bankruptcy if the local government kept stalling on this issue.

In the miniseries, the mayor-elect learns that the appeal was denied, smiles nervously, and says, “Nothing I can do about that, right?”

He has no idea how ugly things are going to get, as the other members of the city council – spurred on by toothpick-brandishing Hank Spallone (Alfred Molina), not to mention an angry and very vocal white constituency insisting their concern is only property values, and not the race of their potential new neighbors – dig in their heels and refuse to comply with the judge's orders. Near the start of the miniseries, we're told that Yonkers is a city where party affiliation barely matters, and compromise is routine, but Nick is quickly plunged into a nightmare where his enemies, allies and voters alike all refuse to listen to reason or the stark realities of the situation, as the city and his bright political career begin unraveling.

This was in theory a simple issue complicated by the conflicting rules and agendas of the city charter, the federal government, and the many people fighting tooth and nail against these houses – 200 units in a city of 200,000 people – and one that requires an intimidating amount of exposition to properly explain. Yet because Simon, Zorzi, and Haggis have Oscar Isaac – so natural, so likeable, and so compulsively watchable – to sort through the bureaucracy right along with us, “Show Me a Hero” very rarely feels like homework.

Though Simon and Zorzi employ a number of recognizable faces from “The Wire” (Clarke Peters, Michael Potts, and Michael Kostroff, among others) in small roles, the great bulk of the cast is made up of actors new to their particular brand of cable drama muckraking, just as Haggis is a new creative partner, with a very different visual and emotional aesthetic  than we're used to. Almost everyone is working out of their comfort zone, and the production is filled by lively, surprising performances, like “Walking Dead” alum Jon Bernthal stepping out of his usual meathead role to instead play a dogged ACLU lawyer, or Winona Ryder trying on a Yonkers accent as one of Nick's closer friends on the city council.

Though the case was its most public and embarrassing at City Hall, the miniseries understands that its impact was more deeply felt by the white residents fighting against the new townhouses, and by the black and brown ones from the other side of town looking for something as basic as a better place to live. 

The paranoid white residents are mainly given voice through Catherine Keener as Mary Dorman, who doesn't see anything racially-motivated in her complaints, even as she (as Mary did in real life) tells an African-American reporter, “I just don't think you should take people with one lifestyle and put them smack in a place with a different lifestyle.” While some of the housing's opponents are painted as inveterate, if carefully-phrased, bigots, Mary's feelings about the issue, and the ways they change as the case evolves, are much more complex and interesting.

As a vocal protest leader, Mary's easier to integrate into what Nick and Hank Spallone are up to in the council chambers. The periodic check-ins on minority residents of the old projects – including an infirm woman whose home health nurse is reluctant to come to her apartment, and a single mother from the Dominican Republic who notes that while she can make more money in America, being poor here can often feel like her kids are in prison – are taken straight from Belkin's book, and they don't always fit as seamlessly in the early going. But like so much of Simon's work, those stories build in power as they go along, and by the miniseries' end, we see – often with the smallest of moments that we might take for granted, but that they can't – just how deeply the issue affects them. Patience, as always, is rewarded.

Haggis and Simon might seem mismatched partners, but their skills prove very complementary. The soberness of Simon's writing leavens Haggis' sentimental streak, even as that sentiment in turn makes the whole thing feel less wonky. (The creative team collectively chose Bruce Springsteen as Nick's musical touchstone, and his songs both famous (“Hungry Heart”) and not (“Gave It a Name”) fill the soundtrack, creating a sense that this story is one more harsh but hopeful piece of Americana like the best of the Boss.) And Haggis is fantastic at shooting the many borderline riots that take place in and around City Hall; you'll practically smell all these sweaty loudmouths as their protests make a bad situation vastly worse.

The story ends very badly for some (I'd advise against Googling the names of the main characters, though knowing the greatest tragedy ahead of time in no way diminished my enjoyment), very well for others, and in between for the rest. It's modern life in all its messiness, told by a group of artists with a particular flair for capturing it.

“The thing is, people just want a home, right?” Nick says at one point. “It's the same for everybody.”

This is a basic, fundamental human issue, one that should be easy for everyone in this story to understand. As “Show Me a Hero” – the exact kind of project a company like HBO should be putting its abundant resources behind –  teaches us early and often, even the simplest lessons can be hard for some to learn.

Especially when they don't have storytellers like these to help explain it.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at