Show Me an Unsung Hero: David Simon Tackles a Doomed Fight for Good

David Simon’s new series is a somber story about a good man trying to make a difference.

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Winona Ryder and Oscar Isaac in 'Show Me a Hero.' Brimming with enthusiasm while projecting insecurity.
Winona Ryder and Oscar Isaac in 'Show Me a Hero.' Brimming with enthusiasm while projecting insecurity.Credit: HBO/Paul Schiraldi

The world of TV, like any other realm, has its share of unsung heroes. They are the characters that shape it, challenge it and in general make it happen; but we rarely see their faces. They are names, female or male, who have a successful – in terms of ratings and reviews – TV series (or two, or three) to their credit, which is why any new oeuvre of their fertile minds sets the bar very (sometimes unfairly) high, and creates a buzz of its own: The new series of... fill-in-the-blank, the highly acclaimed creator of... fill-in-the-blank.

A newcomer to this fold is Nic Pizzolatto, who struggles valiantly to keep his balance on the success tightrope of “True Detective.” A veteran in the field is Shonda Rhimes, with “Grey’s Anatomy” (the medical drama’s 12th season will begin airing on 24th of September, picking up the pieces after a major character’s demise) and “Scandal” (the political thriller’s fifth season will begin its run in the U.S. later the same evening).

Most of those behind-the-screen TV heroes are lauded for their flair for drama, their ability to keep viewers on their toes (and their thumbs far from the remote), and their feel for what the multitudes of viewers out there will like. Some of them are acclaimed for all of the above, plus a sense of gravitas. This means that their series maintain our attention and entertain us, but while doing that, they are also about “something,” namely an issue, or theme, that has something to do with the life we live, and not only the TV series we view.

One of those is David Simon, a journalist (for the Baltimore Sun) who turned his experiences on the mean streets into two successful books: “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” (1991) and “The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood” (1997), co-written with Ed Burns. The books, in turn, served as bases for successful TV series, written and produced by Simon (“Homicide” for NBC, 1993-99, and “Corner” as a mini-series for HBO, 2000).

But those were just the stepping stones for Simon’s big break with “The Wire” (HBO, 2002-08). That series, written, produced and run wholly by Simon, dissected city life and corruption on all its levels, with a major part of the plot (and plots-within-plots) unfolding through the use of various surveillance techniques, i.e. wiretapping. In a way, “The Wire” preceded – or foreshadowed – the brouhaha that erupted with the Wikileaks disclosures and Edward Snowden revealing that nothing is private anymore.

“Despite receiving only average ratings and never winning major television awards, ‘The Wire’ has been described by many critics as one of the greatest TV dramas of all time,” – says Wikipedia. That should make anyone in his right mind, hearing about new TV fare – a mini-series this time – by David Simon, sit up and tune in (in the U.S. from August 16 on HBO, in Israel from August 17 on Yes Oh).

Life has other plans

The new mini-series, entitled “Show Me a Hero,” consists of six episodes, broadcast in the U.S. and Israel in three segments (two one-hour episodes aired together, over three consecutive weeks) and is based on real life events and on a 1999 non-fiction book by Lisa Belkin. The theme – the main event, as it were, but also the backdrop of the series – is something that sounds more like a segment for “60 Minutes” than a background for an HBO TV series: desegregation.

What Simon, and Belkin before him, and life as we see it, tell us about desegregation in the U.S., with its black-and-white (and other hues) theme, as in Israel with its particular colors, is that theory is one thing, while life usually has other plans. Meaning that preaching that all men (and women) were created equal, and therefore deserve the same share of opportunity and wealth is one thing, while implementing the idea is another.

In the case of “Show Me a Hero” it happens – and it actually did in real life – in Yonkers, New York, a city just north of Manhattan, in 1987. The city is obliged to provide 200 units of “public housing,” which is a sort of euphemism for flats built mainly for the underprivileged (in the U.S. this usually refers to black people). The idea of desegregation maintains that these units should not be built in one neighborhood, thus creating another ghetto, but integrated in batches into more affluent neighborhoods. But in practice, the Yonkers city council was divided on the issue, which ended in the court that had ordered the city to proceed with desegregation as the law intended, or be fined and as a result, go bankrupt.

The hero of the story, in the series and in real life is Nick Wasicsko, a Yonkers city councilman who got himself elected, at 27, mayor of Yonkers. (Someone suggested he should run, and he thought, hey, why not?) Now, having objected to the desegregation, sensing that one cannot force such an issue on a divided population, he must comply with a court order and a city that goes bankrupt while he can do very little about it.

It is a somber story about a good man trying to build his life and make a difference, doomed to failure by circumstances beyond his control. He is played by Oscar Isaac, brimming with enthusiasm while at the same time projecting endearing insecurity, just the right “hero in spite of himself.” The series takes its time and is not afraid to dwell on details, some of them technical. But the soundtrack features Bruce Springsteen’s songs, and in the cast includes Alfred Molina, James Belushi and Winona Ryder.

The main problem with series based on true stories is that you are sorely tempted not to wait until the last episode, but go online and find out how it all worked out. So let me give you a bit of advice here, as an antidote for spoilers: Don’t do that. The series works better for you, as a viewer, if you believe – against all odds – that happy endings (and Santa Claus) do exist.