San Francisco — A six-part miniseries about the battle to locate 200 units of public housing in East Yonkers, N.Y., is evidence that television has only begun to explore its potential.
Show Me a Hero, created by David Simon (The Wire) and directed by Paul Haggis (Crash), courageously defies convention at every turn, making us work to buy into its multiple story lines. But that initial work pays off with an emotional release that lives up to the Scott Fitzgerald line from which the title is taken: "Show me a hero and I'll show you a tragedy."
The miniseries premieres Sunday on HBO, Based on actual events, with a stunning script by William F. Zorzi and Simon, from the book by Lisa Belkin, Hero begins in 1987 as Yonkers is slapped with court mandate to build public housing. Many residents are ready to fight the court order with everything they have, as are members of the city's political establishment, including young Councilman Nicholas Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), who successfully challenges Mayor Angelo Martinelli (James Belushi) for re-election. Wasicsko and other local pols try every way to challenge the mandate from Judge Leonard Burke Sand (Bob Balaban) but hit a brick wall every time.
Meanwhile, city residents are stepping up their rancor. Some politicians, like Councilman Hank Spallone (Alfred Molina), pander to the rabble and promise an impossible victory against the court order. But Wasicsko and a few others reluctantly realize they have to abide by the court's decree. As long as the city drags its feet, the court has imposed a heavy fine.
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Local politicians and the courts aren't the only players in this tug o' war. Michael Sussman (Jon Bernthal) is on hand on behalf of the NAACP to help get the units built, as is architect Oscar Newman (Peter Riegert), who advocates for a policy of "defensible space" in public housing planning. Newman believes that smaller pockets of public housing guard against public housing developments becoming crime centers.
It might sound as dry as dust, but in the hands of Simon and Haggis, it's increasingly gripping as the story of the housing fight is told through exploration of the characters of the players, including several people who desperately need better housing but don't have the income to pay for it.
Norma O'Neal (La Tanya Richardson Jackson) is a woman in her late 40s who works as a home health aide but is losing her eyesight. She's the one who needs help now, but health aides are too afraid to come to the projects where she lives.
Doreen Henderson (Natalie Paul) is a young single mother with a drug problem. She thinks she can be a good mother, but drugs inevitably take control of her life.
Carmen Reyes (Ilfenesh Hadera) is a Dominican-born single mother of three kids. She works long hours to keep the kids fed.
Not for a moment will you doubt that the housing will be built, but that's not really what Hero is about. It's about what motivates our divisive views of people who aren't like us. Wasicsko puts it well in a seemingly offhand remark, that "Underneath it all, it's fear. Same as it ever was."