An early scene in Show Me a Hero typifies the miniseries’s blunt, broad storytelling. In Yonkers, city council member Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) has recently announced he’s running for mayor opposite longtime incumbent Angelo Martinelli (James Belushi), unknowingly serving as a pawn in the latter’s ultimately unsuccessful scheme to keep the position. When Nick enters a copy room in the city offices to prepare campaign materials, two secretaries shoot him the stink-eye, claiming they’ll be at the copy machine for a while. Nick asks how long, and they say hours. Getting it, Nick looks for another machine. We’re able to discern a straightforward nugget of expositional information: Nick’s being blackballed by Martinelli’s loyalists as a traitor. But director Paul Haggis and screenwriters David Simon and William F. Zorzi aren’t content that we get it, lingering on the secretaries for an extra beat, having one of them actually say, “He’s gonna run against Angelo and get help around here? He’s crazy.”
Sledgehammer touches like this accumulate rapidly by the dozens in Show Me a Hero. The scene is characteristic of Haggis, a tediously literal-minded black-and-white moralist whose films render even Ron Howard’s middling brand of preachy cinematic tapioca spicy by comparison. Directing all six episodes, Haggis makes his usual inadvertently condescending fetish of the gritty white middle-class, which is meant to contrast with his insidiously patronizing sanctification of struggling blacks and Hispanics as imperiled lambs forever lecturing one another for their crimes or accidentally breeding whenever one of them so much as feints toward a sexual gesture. Haggis’s “empathy” with the marginalized is offensively defensive, serving to color them into the very “other” corner that the miniseries is attempting to deconstruct. The narrative’s elliptical structure (each episode is set several months apart, cumulatively spanning several years from the late 1980s to the early 1990s) ensures that the non-white characters are scrambling from one situational extremis to another, embodying a white-perceived cliché of their lives as chiefly composed of squabbling and tragedy.
There are no glancing touches; to be fair, Haggis is an equal-opportunity huckster. For instance, the director can’t merely have two white Yonkers City employees talking in a bar, trading world-weary-isms. That would be an incidental pleasure, and Haggis distrusts spontaneous textures to a degree that scans as authentically neurotic. No, Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line” has to be playing to intensify the melancholia, and the scene has to be mostly covered in distractingly epic medium shots that point up the elaborateness of the bar set, with its “Guinness” mirror serving as the image’s through line. Take a shot every time a Bruce Springsteen song pops up as a laughably predictable aural mural to common-man strife and you’ll be buzzing by the second episode. The 1980s period detail is laid on thick with a capital P: cigarette smoke, bad ties, coffee, and facial hair are so ostentatious as to bring to mind BoJack Horseman’s parody of artless TV flashback specials.
These distancing indulgences are unsurprising for Haggis, but they’re shockingly uncharacteristic of The Wire’s Simon and Zorzi, and it’s simultaneously startling and depressing to watch a Simon production that’s this stilted and obvious. Theoretically, Show Me a Hero, which is based on Lisa Belkin’s account of the Yonkers city council’s opposition to the federally mandated building of low-income public housing on East-side neighborhoods beside prosperous white homeowners, would complement The Wire’s examination of the social infrastructures that feed and launder the institutional oppression that thrives in the United States. It’s about how whites have adopted more studiously subtle terms for racism, insisting on the dangers of declining property values in place of simply saying “no coloreds allowed,” and it offers a never-more-relevant parallel to the enraged cries of contemporary conservative bell-ringers, who insist, somehow without irony, that true equality represents an erosion of classic American life. It does, of course, but that’s not a compliment to classic American life.
Yet Show Me a Hero is fatally eaten up with its topicality and importance. The Wire is one of the most piercing examinations of institutional hypocrisy created for any medium, but it’s also a moment-to-moment drama that exists apart from its politics—a distinction that paradoxically serves a political purpose. That series hinged on an elaborate, resonant series of counterpoints: against the hopelessness of fashioning mass social revolution, a micro portrait was offered of professionals of various races, genders, and ideologies who bonded through their obsession with crime-solving as substitute for reform. This structure was further complicated through the equally textured counterpoint provided by the drug dealers, whose lives were shown, underneath the formality of warfare, to be at times unerringly similar to those of the heroes’. The actors played detective-series types, but over the long haul transcended them.
There’s no such transcendence in Show Me a Hero. It’s torn between Haggis’s love of soapbox melodrama and Simon’s fascination with the minute processes of social governance, the two impulses canceling themselves out. The potential emotional satisfaction of this melodrama, which is insultingly pat to begin with, is hampered by the seemingly endless scenes of council meetings that Simon characteristically loves, which are contextually diluted by the stock dialogue and cartoon acting that surrounds them.
Most prominently, Catherine Keener dons ridiculous old-lady drag, undergoing a transition from reactionary to progressive that climaxes with a montage of her and other white ladies visiting black families, set to Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” that’s shameless even for Haggis. And Isaac, doing that Al Pacino impression he honed in the similarly dull A Most Violent Year, isn’t able to lend his character’s unscrupulous desperation any stature. Nick’s a hero things happen to, and while that’s partially the point given the political quagmire in which he finds himself, there’s no sense of escalation or suspense to his plight. Occasionally, a veteran of The Wire will appear to remind one of Simon’s better work, briefly stealing the stage from the chief actors before receding to the sidelines again. Clarke Peters, for example, invests his role as a neighborhood consultant with a seemingly casual sense of gravity and grace that embarrasses Keener and Isaac; as influential city planner Oscar Newman, Peter Riegert also holds his own. The difference is easy to distinguish: Peters and a few others play characters, while everyone else attempts to offer a ham-handed essay on How We Live.