The Tragedy Writes Itself

22 Sep

Review: Show Me a Hero (SPOILER ALERT)

David Simon is among the last people I would turn to in search of a portrait of a hero, but the man behind The Wire undertakes that very task in his latest project, a mini-series that aspires to give us one. And yet, with some help from an incessant Springsteen soundtrack and some of The Wire’s old bit players, Simon transports us back to Yonkers, New York, in the 1980s, and makes us believe, if only for a little while. Show Me a Hero is Simon at his peak, all of his Wire themes boiled down into six quick hours as a city grapples with its own soul. In a novel burst that shows a different side of Simon, the city finds that soul.

The apparent hero is Nick Wasicsko, the kid mayor who becomes the unlikely force to push through a court-ordered public housing plan. The wealthy denizens of Yonkers’ east side want no part of these units, and the opportunistic Wasicsko plays to that fear to steal an election from a longtime incumbent. But Judge Leonard Sand orders the city’s desegregation full-stop, and Wasicsko quickly comes to see he is powerless to stop the construction. He becomes the reluctant champion of public housing. In just a few hours he endures riot-like council hearings and cantankerous councilors who’d rather go to jail for contempt than face reality, to say nothing of KKK graffiti and a pipe bomb. It takes courage to persevere here, or at the very least an unassailable sense of pride. Wasicsko may or may not have the former, but he certainly has the latter, and as such, heroism is his to claim.

It’s been said that it’s impossible to write a book or a television script that is both broad and deep; one must err on one side. Simon’s work always falls on the broad side. He gives us a rich tapestry of life in the Yonkers projects, and even if viewers only get to know bits of characters and can’t remember their names, they endure. This is politics at its most profound, the human relationships rising above any policy platform or high ideal. On occasion there are back room deals in gruff New York accents, but most of the time the drama plays out through frantic conversations in community centers or living rooms, and no one knows how they’re going to turn out. These people must find their way in the dark, act as if they have history on their side when no one really knows how it will all turn out. They show us the full range of human emotion as the world around them compels them to show us their best and worst sides.

Nick Wasicsko, in the end, is a fairly static figure, and only in the final two episodes do we come to see how sadly shallow he is. The goofy kid who jumped into politics at the beginning of the series has not matured one bit, and instead thinks his heroism has entitled him to glowing love. His steady decline is both glaring and painful, and while he may be a bit one-dimensional, the deep dive into that one dimension is all too real. Nick has fallen for the political game. Even in the narrow world of Yonkers intrigue, which reverts to the public works department totem pole once the housing war blows over, he is too far into the cave.

Those of us with the political bug likely know the power of this allure, and how easily pride can destroy someone with no other anchor for self-worth. When validation comes from votes or political favors, happiness is even more illusory than usual, and life becomes nothing but a series of battles, all life-affirming victories or soul-crushing defeats. Any cycle between the two is dead, and a when the breaking point comes, doom is not far off. For Wasiscko, this most likely comes on the day when he visits the projects he nursed to life and learns that no one cares who he is. Fitzgerald may have come up with the quote that gives the series its title—show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy—but the Greeks were on to this a few millennia ago. Simon, presumably, knows this, and the tale follows the classic arc with exacting precision.

I’ve maintained for some time that there are no heroes; no one can stay on the pedestal for long. No, there are only heroic acts, and we can all aspire to them from time to time, when circumstances align—just as surely as we can sink into the darkness that consumed Nick. But even more heroic than Nick Wasiscko, perhaps, are people like Doreen Henderson and Mary Dorman, women with no claim on the political life before the housing situation thrusts it upon them. Both women find their voice over the course of the series, and in radically different ways: Doreen escapes the crack epidemic and organizes the new housing tenants into a cohesive community, while Mary, first spurred to rally against the housing plan in public debate, becomes its most committed advocate once she sees the human face of her new neighbors. There is no pretense here, no gamesmanship; only people coming examine their conscience and see the world with eyes wide open. Reality doesn’t always work this way, but it’s refreshing to see Simon show this side of the story in addition to the well-worked tragedy.

An aspiring planner can’t help but acknowledge the other star of the show: Oscar Newman, the architect, planner, and father of defensible space theory. His formula is shockingly simple: spread out public housing to reduce the effects of concentrated poverty, and eliminate common spaces that no one can care for. By giving residents ownership of their new townhomes and eliminating the public hallways or stairwells, the Yonkers projects give them the necessary stake in the protection of their territory. The feared blights never arrive, and the series leaves us with children playing in their new lawns, their wonder is the perfect foil to the staring, fearful white neighbors. Simon appears to have more faith in public housing scholarship than anyone I’ve ever met in the academy, and seems to believe a few smart planners can make things right. This is a more mature Simon than the one who went to (literally) absurd lengths to find any decency in the world in The Wire, and in a certain 2012 commencement address. Maybe the man is a softie after all.

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