One of the legacies of The Wire has been that every subsequent David Simon series is now destined to be scrutinised to determine how successfully it lives up to that monumental achievement. In fact, so expansive and all-encompassing was The Wire’s vision that it’s tended to make Simon’s following projects seem self-consciously minor, or at least provided him with a space to produce minor television of a kind that would be difficult for a showrunner who hadn’t make his or her mark in such an emphatic way. Of course, that’s not to say that Simon’s themes or preoccupations are minor in any way, but that, having mastered the longform television serial, he’s created a situation where the only way to progress or develop as a writer is to explore options and possibilities that lie outside the current longform paradigm. At the moment, in television, those possibilities are increasingly constellating around two modes, the anthology series and the miniseries, and while The Wire is arguably something of a forerunner of the anthology craze in its association of each season with a distinct Baltimore space – and in the stand-alone feeling of the second season in particular – it’s the miniseries to which Simon has increasingly turned in order to find some way out from under his own eminent shadow.
In part, that’s because the miniseries is a somewhat familiar form for Simon. After the massive success of Homicide: Life on the Street – even more sprawling, in some ways, than The Wire – he contracted his focus to that most mercurial and essential of inner city spaces, The Corner,with a six-episode study of the West Baltimore drug trade that introduced many of the actors and character types that would come to populate The Wire. At the same time, it’s no accident that Simon turned to the miniseries as a counterpoint either, since his a great deal of his naturalistic genius lies in his capacity for stitching together macrocosmic and microcosmic visions of power. If the peculiar ingenuity of his longform series resides in the way in which he manages to ground his sprawling, panoramic and multi-generational narratives within the most minute particularities of place, neighborhood and community, then the miniseries offered him an opportunity to effect the same process from the opposite direction – namely, to focus on a specific space, incident or personality in ways that generated a similarly sprawling critique.
Following The Wire, however, Simon has taken a while to come out with a miniseries that functioned as a counterpoint as effectively as The Corner did to Homicide: Life on the Street.On the one hand, Treme was too indecisive about whether to operate according to longform or shortform rhythms – although that very indecision and even incoherence was perhaps what made it Simon’s most systemic critique to date, as well as a sequel of sorts to the final season ofThe Wire. On the other hand, Generation Kill was a little too left-field in its subject matter – the 2003 Iraq War – to fit neatly into the lineage of Simon’s urban-oriented, Baltimore-centric slices of social realism. In retrospect, those two forays into relatively remote outposts of Simon’s Northeast Corridor – New Orleans and Iraq – feel like a way of biding time and regrouping before the release of his most recent miniseries, Show Me A Hero, which is quite emphatically and ingeniously post-Wire in ways that weren’t always present within its two predecessors.
At the same time, Show Me A Hero also marks a distinct shift in David Simon’s body of work in that this is the first series he has created that can genuinely be described as historical. In fact, it may be the beginning of a new stage of historical social realism in his career, with his next project slated to star James Franco at the centrepiece of a story set in the adult entertainment industry in 1970s New York. Of course, some of Simon’s other works are technically historical – Generation Kill and Treme both came out a full five years after the events they describe. Whether because those events – the Iraq War and Katrina – were so catastrophic or because our sense of historical time has declined, both series felt as if they were dealing with a past that was almost as remote as that of Show Me A Hero, which is set in the late 1980s/early 1990s. At the same time, Simon’s project has always felt akin to a history of the present, a time capsule for posterity – that’s pretty much his definition of investigative journalism – just as the generational rhythms of both Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire gave both series a historical ambience, even if they were set in an urgent, intensified iteration of the present tense that left nowhere to hide.
Still, Show Me A Hero is the first of Simon’s series that has what might genuinely be described as a historical feel, and in that sense perhaps marks his transition from historical television – television that is both interested in “doing” history – to the kinds of period television, and period register, that have become particularly prominent in depictions of the 1970s and 1980s over the last half-decade. To Simon’s credit, however, while he may tap into this tendency, he doesn’t mine it for nostalgia, an even greater achievement given that the majority of the soundtrack is comprised either of tracks from Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, or tracks with the same synthy, wistful, end-of-rock kind of sound, most memorably in a Tunnel of Loveouttake previously buried in the back of a late 90s compilation that is set here over an astoundingly beautiful opening montage sequence, where it functions as a testament to some of the most nuanced and gorgeous direction in Paul Haggis’ career, who takes the helm for all six episodes.
For all that lavish atmosphere, though, Show Me A Hero is as procedural and as journalistic – perhaps even more so – than Simon’s previous efforts, honing in on the period from 1987 to 1994, when Yonkers was thrown into the national spotlight as the first American city in which public and private housing were forcibly desegregated and, by extension, the first American city in which affluent white and working-class African-American populations were forcibly desegregated as well. Amidst widespread outrage on the part of Yonkers residents who feared that this move would lead to a drop in property values – and other values – the City Council took the extraordinary step of refusing to pass the legislation, resulting in Yonkers being fined an escalating amount – it quickly reached a million dollars a day – and basic services and amenities being gradually terminated. During that period, some City Councillors explored ways to appeal the legislation, while others resigned themselves to the inevitable, all the while as unrest, discord and the threat of physical violence grew ever more palpable among the citizens of Yonkers themselves, who attended City Council meetings in droves and clamoured for some kind of political figurehead who might provide them with a way out of the planned housing.
In some ways, the series is about the person who promised to be that figurehead, only to realise – or to be made to realise – that he was fighting for the wrong side. Elected to City Mayor on his promise to fight the desegregation, Councillor Nick Wasicsko, played here by Oscar Isaac, only really had one card up his sleeve – recourse to a federal appeals court who flatly rejected the legislation being overturned a mere couple of days after he took up office. From that point on, Wasicsko was forced to support the desegregation to avoid the city being totally decimated by fines, finally managing to convince enough of his fellow Councillors to vote in favour of the public housing being put into effect. At its heart, Show Me A Hero is a character study of Wasicsko, as well as a memorial, since the great tragedy of his career was that he was voted out of office for the very reason that he was voted into it – dissatisfaction over the public housing – while his successor managed to appropriate credit for the desegregation process once it was accepted as a done deal. Left in the unenviable position of being blamed by the more racist memories of the community but disavowed by the more liberal members, and voted out of the City Council in the process, Wasicsko took his own life in 1994, and it’s that event that bookends the series, which opens and closes in the Yonkers cemetery where the tragic event occurred.
If the series is a character study of Wacisko, though, it’s partly as the epicentre of a historical and political moment whose import and significance exceeded the consciousness or agency of any one person. On the one hand, that gives Isaac’s performance an incredible intensity, as he embraces all the contradictions, misgivings and insecurities of his character, in what feels more like a sustained cinematic performance than a televisual role, especially since the series was effectively broadcast as three connected telemovies – two episodes for three successive Sundays – to capture the condensed, claustrophobic timeframe of the City Council’s prevarications and preparations. Adding to the complexity is the fact that Wasicsko seems to have stumbled into his realisation almost by chance, supporting the housing plan out of necessity but only gradually coming to believe in it himself, which creates a lurking, lingering anxiety that this may not have really been his victory to claim, even if history had been more willing to acknowledge his part in the process. Ever since Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac has excelled at depicting characters who are somewhat displaced from their own lives and are haunted by that displacement, which is perhaps why his penetrating facial expressions and brooding body language often seem to hark back to an older, slower and more contemplative style of acting promulgated by actors who were aware of their entire story and backstory at every moment of their performance, rather than the post-continuous charisma that’s become more the norm in contemporary cinema. As might be expected, that works wonders in this context, with Isaac’s Wasicsko exuding a fateful awareness that this story will not eventually be his to tell, even as he struggles to claim and inhabit it as his own at every step along the way, skittishly trying to put together the pieces of a massive sociocultural moment that just happens to have taken him as one of its key vehicles, as if the sense of historical determinism pervadingThe Wire had settled on one man’s shoulders.
At the same time, the fact that the Yonkers crisis exceeds Wacisko means that this also stops shy of being a biopic as well, with Isaac’s performance subsumed into a remarkably rich historical and political texture for such a short piece of television. While some critics have complained about the supposedly interminable Council scenes, I found these amongst the most touching and visceral in the miniseries, with their barely controlled chaos choreographed into a kind of vision of the bureaucratic inadequacies of The Wire in a single space. More than any other part of the miniseries, they capture the sheer cognitive dissonance rupruting Yonkers at this moment in time, opening up a disjunction between federal legislation and local government that often makes it feel as if the citizens of the city are themselves segregating or seceding from the United States as much as fighting desegregation within their own city. Not only does that beautifully capture the blind spots in bureaucracy that, for Simon, are where history occurs, but it also offers a vision of democracy in inaction, a schism of competing, contradictory and cacaphonous voices that threaten to exceed any kind of institutional regulation that might allow them to find some common ground. As racial tensions have escalated in the United States in the wake of the Ferguson crisis, there’s been an increasing recourse to images of mass black protest, both in the renewal of gangsta culture as a viable – even canonical – language of demonstration, but also in the remediation of Civil Rights protest in the form of films like Selma. For all the power of those gestures, however, there’s something infinitely more galvanising – for me, at least – in Simon’s version of white protest, as the City Council sequences take us, time and again, into the midst of a mass of white middle-class suburbanites who are prepared to do just about anything to prevent African-American people entering their community. At a time when white, right-wing terror against African-Americans is either denied or psychologised away as a mere symptom of one-off mental health problems, there’s something of a tonic in these visions of mass racism that makes the series feel as if it’s unmistakably about the present, for all its lovely period touches.
If this focus on the mass is one of the key ways in which Simon avoids subsuming his story into a mere biopic, there’s also something to be said for the procedural integrity with which he pursues his vision. Whereas you can sometimes sense that Haggis wants to make this a more character-driven drama, the script’s trajectory is firmly tied to that of the housing complex itself, as we trace through the movement from legislation to inception to completion, in the same way that each season of The Wire – with the possible exception of the fifth – traced through a specific piece of legislation or a bureacratic procedure in order to provide an arc to contour and anchor the investigative component in turn. As in The Wire, too, that identification of the miniseries itself with a particular space and process gives the camera an incredible affinity with the textures, tones and ambience of each particular space through which it moves, but especially those procedural, bureaucratic and functional spaces that ground its movement, and which feel like so many synecdoches for the processes that it is trying to convey. Moving far beyond period nostalgia, Simon’s vision makes these period trappings feel like an effort to render bureaucracy visible, as well as the systemic forces that drive bureaucracy in the first place, which gives them an almost revelatory quality at moments, most memorably in a scene in which a coalition of Yonkers residents who have been mobilised to ease the transition make their first visit to an actual housing project, where they’re presented with a panorama of ways in which people can make do with and actually inhabit spaces – stairwells, corridors, elevators – that in their own lives are purely transitory, barely worth a second glance until this moment.
At the same time, this effort to craft a kind of architectonics of bureaucratic ineptitude doesn’t ever get too lofty in its panoramic detachment, even or especially in the midst of the sweeping aerial shots of Yonkers that open the series and, in their sense of a collective ongoing mourning, often recall the sprawl of Greenmount Cemetery that forms a continual, aerial point of reference in The Wire. Certainly, as in The Wire, there is a fascination with urban spatiality that by definition transcends any individual character, with a great deal of the negotiations being driven by discussions of recent criminological theories regarding the relationship between public housing architecture and criminal behaviour. Most of these are driven by Peter Riegert’s wonderful portrayal of Oscar Newman, architect for the Yonkers houses but perhaps more importantly the prime advocate of what came to be known as defensible space theory, which held that higher density public housing corresponded to higher crimes rates because the inhabitants were unable to feel any sense of ownership, pride or connection to their properties. If the minieries has anything approaching a sage – if a somewhat crotchety and fallible sage – then it’s Newman, which is perhaps why it also feels like an elaboration of the defensible space theory itself, a way of doing urban theory on television that may have been more elaborate and reticulated on The Wire but is pithy in a different kind of way here, creating the impression of an illustration or a demonstration as much as a recreation, which again contributes to the sense that the affinity between Haggis’ camera and the spaces it traverses is very much documentarian in nature.
Of course, a key part of that demonstration lies in exploring the relationship between the housing project and its residents – both the residents of housing projects elsewhere who would eventually end up in Yonkers and the residents of Yonkers who lived in closest proximity to the housing project, and so found themselves enmeshed in the project somewhat inadvertently. To that end, Simon introduces a series of what might be called subplots were they more about plot and less about character, social position and spatiality, outlining both a cross-section of people who would turn out to be the first generation of public housing residents in Yonkers, but also a cross-section of spaces from which they came, most of which tend to be high-rise projects in New York City and Westchester County. When I saw the first installment of the series – the first two episodes – I felt somewhat ambivalent about these subplots (for want of a better word), not merely because they seemed to dilute the visceral intensity of the procedural Council sequences, but also because they seemed more attuned to a series than a miniseries. Without a good ten or twelve episodes to expand and develop, they ran the risk – I felt – of seeming a little token, or, worse, trivialising the inhabitants of the public housing project by reducing them to the very “types” that the miniseries seemed so keen to combat. On the one hand, it helped that they tended to be textural, impressionistic and somewhat elliptical in nature, but, on the other hand, that just made me wish that, once again, there was an entire season to luxuriate in and commune with that texture, in the same way that it could sometimes take half a season – or even two-thirds of a season – to really “feel” the way everything came together in The Wire.
But that all changed for me in the third installment of the series, as well as in parts of the second installment, and I’m not sure exactly how or why it happened, except that it’s a testament to Simon’s deftness as a writer that all these characters started to suddenly feel more and more fully-formed and embodied as their movement into the Yonkers residences started to become imminent. If the process of watching The Wire often involved witnessing relatively familiar types gradually – and uncannily – reveal a new kind of three-dimensionality, then that process was compressed and intensified here, which might sound somewhat hurried on paper, but actually worked beautifully within the context of this specific narrative, where it forced the audience into the perspective of the white, middle-class Yonkers residents. Like them, we spent much of the first installment perceiving public housing inhabitants as so many types, and feeling a certain token sympathy, but when those inhabitants actually arrived within the ambit of the action, they suddenly functioned as a kind of reproach for the paucity with which we had previously charactersised them – or been induced to characterise them – in what often felt like a story about the politics of working-class, public-housing visibility as much as a case study of this particular moment in Yonkers’ history or in the history of racial desegregation and vilification. In a kind of underhand move, it felt as if Simon had forced a somewhat kitsch lens in the first installment only to replace it with a more characteristic naturalism in the second and third, which is perhaps why the series felt like a demonstration of a realisation as much as a process, an examination of the messy process of coming-to-consciousness about systemic exploitation.
And if Isaac’s performance was one pole of that realisation, then the other pole was Catherine Keener’s performance as Mary Dorman, an East Yonkers housewife who was originally part of the Save Yonkers Foundation but gradually found herself advocating for communication and understanding between the newer and older residents of her neighborhood. Keener has always excelled at playing characters who cloak their innate sympathy behind a prickly wall of reserve and hesitation, which makes her perfect for the role of Dorman, whose decision to leave behind some of her racist preconceptions is as much a matter of necessity as Wasicsko’s, but no less rousing in the way that a genuine openness to her new African-American neighbours arises from that necessity at the same time, even if she is unable to ever fully relinquish her sense of discomfort and disorientation at finding herself in the midst of this new community. In its vision of a woman struggling to come to terms with generational assumptions – the hardest to overcome – it manages to pay tribute to the difficulty of ingrained beliefs without making an apology for ingrained racism either. Critics of Simon’s work have often discerned a fatalism, or capitalist realism, that militates against individual agency, and while that may often be true ofThe Wire, Wasicsko and Dorman’s respective changes of mindset perhaps pave the way for a new kind of optimism in his outlook, since in both cases there’s a genuine sense that people can change and contribute to change once they acknowledge that change is hard work, requires conscious thought and often involves seizing upon and wrestling with contingencies as well.
That said, it would be a mistake to suggest that the series involves some kind of agon whereby two white people come to terms with their own racist preconceptions, since that would be to ignore the host of other voices that make up Simon’s rich texture and tapestry, the warp and weave that makes this so distinctively a part of his body of work. On the public housing side, there are incredible performances from LaTanya Richardson Jackson as Norma O’Neal, a healthcare worker who lives in the projects and is gradually losing her sight, Ilfenesh Hadera as Carmen Feebles, a single mother struggling to raise her son while also considering whether it might be best to send him back to his father in the Dominican Republic, as well as Dominque Fishback as Billie Rowan, a troubled teen who gets offered a place in one of the Yonkers housing estates only to see things go downhill very quickly. Some of Simon’s greatest characters – and character actors – are children and Billie is up there with Snoop, Body and Dukkie as some of the best he Simon has created. As with all his works, though, “created” is something of a loose term, since once again these figures are based on real inhabitants of the housing projects, many of whom are referenced in the book by William F. Zorzi – Simon’s co-writer – upon which the series is based. At the same time, Alfred Molina, Bob Balaban and Jim Belushi flesh out the cast on the City Council side, although it’s perhaps Winona Ryder as Councillor Vincenza Restiano who puts in the most mercurial performance. Barely appearing in the first few episodes, she nevertheless commands the screen from her appearance in the opening scene, and, like Wasicsko and Dorman, really comes into her own in the last installment of the miniseries. Since she hadn’t been publicised as a major member of the cast, I had no idea she was going to be in it until she suddenly appeared, in the midst of the first scene, in a totally unremarkable but also somewhat magical away, suddenly emerging from a fractious Council sequence that was just about the last place I would have expected her to be. In a series about the fragility of reforming your expectations and attitudes, it was a truly serendipitous, even cinephilic moment, and – for me – set the tone for the masterpiece that was about to unfold.