City council debates about housing regulations may not sound like the most thrilling television spectacle. However, David Simon’s six-part drama, made for HBO in the United States and shown on Sky Atlantic here in the United Kingdom, is about just that. And, somehow, it still manages to be one of the best TV dramas of the year so far.
The Wire and Treme creator’s new show is a depiction of real events that took place between the late 1980s and early 1990s in Yonkers, New York. It is set in the months and years after a law requiring public housing be desegregated is passed. The city of Yonkers is now legally forced to build new housing complexes in the more affluent – and more white – part of the city allowing poor ethnic minorities better surroundings.
However, fearing that the housing will ‘bring in a bad element’, ‘depress property values’ and other thinly veiled euphemisms for racial prejudice, many of the white middle class families in the areas begin to protest the law. And there’s another problem: all the city council need to agree to build the housing, by majority, before it can be built. As many of them refuse to agree to the plans, a stalemate ensues between Yonkers and the American law with a judge threatening to hold the city in contempt and drain its resources until it complies.
The main character is the newly elected mayor of Yonkers Nick Wasicsko, played by Inside Llewyn Davis and Star Wars: The Force Awakens star Oscar Isaac. Wasicsko is forced to play every political card in his hand to get his councilmen to back the law – which he admits cannot be changed even if they wanted to. It makes him the target of many of Yonkers’ white population. Meanwhile, his main main opponent, the slimy and hard-headed Hank Spallone (a scenery chewing performance by Alfred Molina), deliberately holds Yonkers in contempt to win the protesters’ support, planning to make his own bid for mayor in the next election.
Show Me A Hero isn’t just six hours of politicking though. We are also provided windows into the lives of people the housing will benefit should Yonkers agree to the plans. We see Doreen Henderson (Natalie Paul) whose environment has driven her to drug use, disabled Norma O’Neal (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) whose nurses are afraid to look after her in her dishevelled apartment in the rough part of town, and low income worker Carmen Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera) who is struggling to make ends meet for her children.
Intriguingly, the most fascinating storyline is elsewhere. It’s that of Mary Dornan. A polite middle-class white lady, played by famous character actress Catherine Keener, Mary Dornan becomes the loudest voice in the anti-housing movement. Through her, we see how even the most ordinary people can succumb to racial prejudice and mob mentality. But her storyline also allows us to see how these barriers can be broken as well as built as the series progresses.
David Simon, a former journalist, is obsessed by the facts of the story. He makes little effort to simplify the complexity of the crisis in Show Me A Hero. It is a procedural drama that is packed with characters (Crash’s Paul Haggis is a good choice of director; he effortlessly weaves these many protagonists together as he did with his Oscar winning drama) and heavy with dialogue discussing the intricacies of housing law. But at no point is his show dry or dull. By contrast, all six hours are surprisingly electrifying.
Show Me A Hero is thrilling because Simon recognises there is something far deeper to this story than a simple public housing crisis. Instead, this is an examination about the deeply rooted racial and economic divide in American society, studying the tensions when both poor and affluent, black and white, are forced to integrate. But he also has an appreciation for the high stakes of this housing too. For many of the people in Show Me A Hero, the potential new house is not just a new home. It’s an opportunity for a better life.
Show Me A Hero is now available to watch on NowTV and you can catch up via the Sky Go app.