Lost in Yonkers

I sometimes wonder how David Simon feels about politicians. He’s definitely critical to the point of cynicism of the machinations of politics, as he is of so many of the systems we create, but having watched The Wire, Treme and now Show Me a Hero, I’ve come to the conclusion that he doesn’t hate politicians altogether, except for a certain kind of politician interested only in self-enrichment. With some of them, I actually think he feels sorry for them.

Simon definitely shows sympathy for Nick Wasicsko (played by Oscar Isaac), the main character of Show Me a Hero – who, in spite of the miniseries’ F. Scott Fitzgerald-inspired title, isn’t a particularly heroic character. Wasicsko was one of the Yonkers city council members and later the mayor of Yonkers around the year 1990, when public housing was the hot topic. At the time Yonkers was in contempt of court for resisting an order, in an attempt to combat racial segregation, to build 200 units of public housing in various districts – which drew the ire of a largely middle-class voting public afraid that the mostly poorer, and especially mostly black, people who’d live in the new houses would bring the crime, drugs and other problems of the ghetto to the predominantly white neighbourhoods.

Show Me a Hero introduces Wasicsko to us not as an idealist but as a politician for politics’ sake. Like most of his colleagues, and like many of the voters he represents, he also opposes public housing at first, and when he changes his mind after having been elected mayor, it’s not because he decides that segregated housing is wrong: he simply realises that the fines imposed on Yonkers if it continued resisting would bankrupt and cripple the city.

In some ways, Wasicsko is the flipside of Thomas Carcetti, another politician in Simon’s oeuvre. Carcetti, who joined the cast of The Wire in season 3, was an idealist who, over the course of three seasons, traded his beliefs and his intent to change Baltimore for the better for a more cynical, career-minded approach. For Carcetti, politics starts out as the necessary means to make a meaningful change but becomes the goal itself. By comparison, Wasicsko is in it for the politics and the sense of power to begin with, he is intoxicated by the idea of becoming mayor and disillusioned when he finds himself having very little power once he has become mayor. Mayor Wasicsko is stuck between a rock and a hard place: on the one side, the disgruntled, loud middle-class voters who got him into office based on his promise to fight public housing, on the other the courts that have the law on their side and that can bring Yonkers to its knees.

While Wasicsko never becomes an idealist, he understands that the public housing project will happen whether Yonkers voters want it or not – the question is just how much the city stands to lose fighting a pointless war. The mayor ends up fighting on the side of angels due to circumstance, and he has reason and the law on his side. Still, little of this matters in the face of the growing anger of the citizen groups fighting the housing project, among them Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener), one of many who would reject that their resistance to public housing is racist in nature but who have no problem to speak of the supposed insurmountable cultural differences between them and those others who would come and live in their neighbourhoods. After all, just look at their run-down ghettos, look at the drugs and crime, and who would want all of that living next to themselves?

Both Wasicsko and Dorman are changed over the course of the series. Dorman slowly wakes up to the sometimes subtle but more and more often overt racism of the people whose side she is on. Meanwhile, Wasicsko finds that although being the most hated person in politics – for keeping Yonkers from going bankrupt, no less! – burns him up, he falls into a deep depression when he is voted out of office by a populist who spouts the right slogans but submits to the courts just as quickly once he’s mayor. After having been forced to fight for an unpopular policy, he nonetheless misses the fight, he misses the sense that he was achieving something, even if neither the fight nor the achievements were something he had chosen of his own accord. He craves confirmation that he has done the right thing. As written by Simon and his frequent collaborator William F. Zorzi, and performed by Isaac, Wasicsko is a figure of pity, an addict yearning to find fulfillment by means of the drugs of politics and public service yet constantly denied his fix.

In parallel to the stories of Nick Wasicsko and Mary Dorman, Show Me a Hero introduces us to various characters that will eventually come to live in the new houses. They give a human face to those rejected up front and on principle by the angry protesters. In a show where Wasicsko was portrayed as the hero we’re led to expect by the title, they might end up as the poor and huddled masses elevated from the ghetto by a white saviour, but the series portrays them as three-dimensional individuals with agency – though with Show Me A Hero being a six-part miniseries we don’t get as full a portrait of them or as thorough an examination of systemic shortcomings as we did in The Wire or Treme. While the actors are poignant and heartbreaking in their roles, there is a degree of shorthand to their portrayal, a sense that the audience needs to fill in the blanks from having seen other series by David Simon.

Show Me a Hero isn’t the all-encompassing portrait of a society and a time that The Wire or Treme are. In the end, the series is about Nick Wasicsko and about the ways in which politicians, rather than clearly either rising to the occasion or failing the people they’re supposed to help, muddle through more than anything else. It is about how they sometimes gets things right eventually and sometimes are ground up in the process – and how the people most eager for office may be the ones least suited to it.

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