It’s hard to image that a television series about urban planning would be that interesting — one might as well subscribe to a channel allowing people to watch paint dry, or Norway’s infamous seasonal burning log, which resulted in vicious controversy one year when viewers contacted the network to express fury over how the logs were stacked. Yet, David Simon (The Wire, Treme) aims to do just that with the six hour miniseries Show Me A Hero, and against all odds, he’s succeeded, as the series isn’t about urban planning as much as it is about segregated housing — an issue that still dogs the United States — and the personalities involved in the fight for fair housing. The result is a hauntingly complicated and intriguing look at Yonkers in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Simon’s work isn’t exactly known for being accessible. In a Hollywood landscape where producers and showrunners are driven and pressured to make likeable content, he seems to be largely indifferent to his audiences, and HBO is apparently willing to indulge him in that particular luxury. The result is difficult, messy programmes that are often hard for viewers to enjoy, with many giving up after a few episodes or struggling to comprehend them, while others hail them as some of the most critically important television being aired in the contemporary United States.
Notably for a white director, much of Simon’s work engages directly with race. In The Wire, he examined the complexity of race relations in Baltimore, both on and off the police force. Treme looked at the post-Katrina world, focusing in many cases on the lives of Black, low-income survivors struggling to make their way in the world. Show Me A Hero looks at the order to desegregate housing in Yonkers and the furious opposition from the white, middle class community that didn’t like to see a disruption of the status quo.
All three programmes covered not just relevant historical issues, but current ones. As illustrated as recently as this summer, when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Fair Housing Act in a Texas case, housing segregation continues to be a problem. The Department of Justice has taken an extremely proactive stance on identifying and pursuing instances of housing discrimination across the nation under the guidance of the Obama administration, mirroring other civil rights pushes. Black and Brown families are still harassed when moving into majority-white neighbourhoods, with residents making wild claims about property values and community influences.
In Show Me A Hero, Simon examines the story of Mayor Nick Wasicsko, who became the youngest mayor of a major city in 1987, and immediately thereafter was tasked with the enforcement of an incredibly unpopular federal court order mandating the construction of affordable public housing. Such housing wouldn’t have attracted much controversy if it hadn’t been slated for a majority white, middle class neighbourhood, where it quickly clashed with both racism and classism, two issues deeply intertwined in the United States.
As the community lobbied ferociously against the ruling, Mayor Wasicsko fought equally hard on the side of civil rights. While the city racked up legal bills, the situation took an immense toll on his professional and personal life, as well as his mental health — the mayor committed suicide in 1993, 14 years before the details of the case were finally settled. The series depicts the usual ‘80s landscape of people and places, with a sharp edge of commentary that manages to avoid being too on the nose, though there are some sly nods to the audience here and there.
One of the most striking, and arguably politically important, aspects of the programme is the setting. The United States continues to maintain the myth that racism is entrenched in the South, and that it is the only region with a lengthy history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, sundown towns, segregation, redlining, and other discriminatory practices. In fact, the North has its own troubled history with race, one made all the more complicated by its insistence on clinging to the myth of a moral high ground.
This is a story set in the heart of the North, in the city that serves as perhaps one of the most recognisable elements of the North. The heart of the Yankee ethos is, after all, in the state that calls the New York Yankees home, and the fact that desegregation was such an issue that an extended legal battle continued over the course of two decades is a striking testimony to how far the North hasn’t come on race, and how little ground it has when it comes to insisting that its political and social stance is superior to that of the South.
Like Simon’s other shows, Show Me A Hero starts slowly, building up the groundwork for a larger narrative. Viewers have to meet the players and see the context before the show can get rolling, which can be rocky ground for those who prefer to be thrown head first into a narrative. Yet in this case it works, though Show Me A Hero may be better suited to marathon watching on a rainy day than treatment as episodic television. This is not, as its host network likes to say, television — it’s deeper, interconnected visual art that draws upon the ability to use several hours to tell a complicated story about real people and places.
Simon is one of the most important auteurs of his time by drawing people to issues of public policy and driving actual change in American politics. While he’s clearly not setting out to produce ‘issue’ television, he’s clearly unabashedly pleased when his work creates an interest in policy, whether it be housing, education, or police reform. An entire generation is growing up under the shadow of Simon, and he will undoubtedly inform the future of the nation — no mean feat for a medium treated so dismissively.