I admit I’m a David Simon fanboi. I watched The Wire in both 4:3 and HD. I torrented every season of Homicide: Life on the Streets. I even watched Treme (well, the first two seasons before I got bored.) And now there’s a brand new David Simon show.
The HBO mini-series Show Me a Hero is about an ugly housing desegregation fight. It’s right in David Simon’s wheelhouse – race and back-room politics seen through a kaleidoscope of perspectives. And there’s a whole bunch of Simon’s hallmarks: Beepers. Drug dealers. Horse-trading politicians. A boyish new mayor in over his head.
But this time he’s not taking on Baltimore or post-Katrina New Orleans; he’s bringing his shtick to Yonkers circa 1987. This hits sort of close to home for me. I attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville from 1981-1985, which puts me just over the border from 1987 Yonkers, both geographically and chronologically.
Which is not to say I’m an expert on this show’s subject matter – I was in the college bubble back then and never even read the papers. I remember being against apartheid, and Reagan sucked, and something something Nicaragua, but that’s all I knew as far as politics went.
No, what I mean is that I’m familiar with the milieu of Show Me a Hero. I had the double-cheeseburger special at The Argonaut, went bowling at various places in Yonkers (and kept score with a pencil, which was the style at the time,) and spent too much money at the Cross County Mall. I remember how Yonkers smelled. I remembered the blow-dried idiots in their bitchin’ Camaros who drove by campus and yelled out “Hey Faggot!” because we were dressed “new wave.” I remember the guys who put on their best velour tracksuit for a night on the town, and the chicks still rocking Farah Fawcett haircuts deep into the 80’s. Yonkers Konkers, they would scratch into the bathroom doors at the Argonaut and spray paint on a wall on Central Park Avenue.
Now here come Baltimore refugees David Simon and William F. Zorzi to tell us about Yonkers. These off-brand writers have adapted Lisa Belkin’s book Show Me a Hero, and they have brought in Canadian ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis to direct. So how did that work out?
The show starts with Oscar Isaac, sporting a vintage De Niro mustache and oozing Vitalis, chugging Maalox in his car. His beeper is going off, but Isaac pays it no mind and staggers out into a cemetery. He sits next to a tombstone, with a look on his face like he has a big decision to make. The beeper keeps going off – 911, 911, 911.
Wow. Who is this guy? What is he doing here? How has he come to this? This is going to be some good television. The title ‘Show Me a Hero’ flashes on the screen, and then the music starts. It’s Springsteen. But the song is “Gave it a Name,” which wasn’t released until 1998. I know Bruce is the official bard of the white working class, but the song is more than just chronologically wrong. This is 1987 Yonkers, and doesn’t deserve the dignity of The Boss – shouldn’t the music be Bon Jovi? Or some kind of crap metal like Whitesnake?
The show continues – there are some dudes in a helicopter, a city council meeting where we meet the politicos, an immigrant woman with kids, a family trying to get out of the projects, yadda yadda. The real action starts when city councilman Oscar Isaac gets called into some dude’s office and gets talked into running for mayor. Could this be some kind of setup? Spoiler alert – of course it is: the dude doing the talking is the same guy who played the stereotypical Jewy Jew shyster lawyer on The Wire. You know he’s no good.
Only this is not such a good time to be running for Mayor of Yonkers. A take-no-prisoners judge (Bob Balaban) has decreed the city must finally build some low-income housing after years of stalling. Most of the council doesn’t seem to care much, as long as they can keep their phony baloney jobs, but one guy (Alfred Molina, practically channeling Donald Trump) is doing a whole “standing in the doorway of the schoolhouse” number and not backing down. And the white citizenry of Yonkers, including a nearly unrecognizable Catherine Keener, has gone full-on Tea Party, and practically calling for armed insurrection if any of this housing ever gets built.
So Oscar Isaac talks politics with his friend Winona Ryder, whose accent is the Standard Actor’s Tri-State Accent, good for any locale from Long Island to New Jersey, and any era from 1930 to the present (See also: Rachel McAdams in Southpaw). And he talks politics with his friends in the bathroom. And – but wait, does this look like 1987? Did they even have push-paddle paper towel dispensers back then?
Isn’t Oscar Isaac’s wet-head look more 70’s than 80’s? Am I being overly critical? But I’m watching along with people on Twitter, as one does these days, and someone else points out a bottle of Rumchata, first released in 2009, in a bar scene. And someone else spots some Ikea furniture.
Now, I realize that David Simon and Paul Haggis aren’t in the business of bringing back 1980s Yonkers so that I can relive my youth, that they are trying to tell a story of race in America, about one politician caught between an irresistible force and an immovable object, but this is getting ridiculous. There is more to making a TV show than a good script and good acting. There is also mise-en-scene, or what we in the USA call Production Design. This is not a minor detail, but a part of telling a story. Robert Evans, producer of The Godfather, said he wanted to make a movie “so Sicilian you could smell the spaghetti sauce.” That’s what is missing from Show Me a Hero.
So what we’re left with is an excellent ensemble cast. Obviously Oscar Isaac is going to be great, but there’s also Catherine Keener, who looks to have a big character arc in future episodes. There are a bunch of refugees from The Wire, and even slab of ham Jim Belushi turns in a career performance as the outgoing mayor. Only Winona Ryder strikes a false note with her overbaked New Yawk accent.
And the story is compelling too. The first two episodes mostly concern the workings of the city council, but the other stories are obviously going to come into play – the asthmatic drug dealer with the downwardly mobile girlfriend, the hard-working immigrant woman who can’t decide between the Dominican Republic and Yonkers. It’s a David Simon joint, so I have faith that all the stories are going to intersect at some point. I’ll be tuning in to every episode. I just wish I could smell the spaghetti sauce.