“Ice Town” was not all Ben Wyatt’s fault: he was just a kid, and Cindy Eckert had just turned him down for prom, after all. What’s a boy-mayor to do—go big! Besides, he was swept along in a rebellious Partridge, MN electorate and just went with the insanity. Still, he was cast as the villain and run out of town, and this lasted decades. But, that was fiction, and it was all in good fun; Yonkers, NY in the late ’80s and early ’90s was most assuredly not. Yonkers was a pressure cooker for issues that still plague society a quarter century later. And this parallelism—not with Parks and Recreation, mind you, but between then and now—is at the core of Show Me a Hero, the new HBO miniseries from executive producer and co-writer (with The Wire writer William Zorzi) David Simon, creator of The Wire, and producer of other epochal TV series—Homicide: Life on the Street, Generation Kill, The Corner, Treme. Show Me a Hero takes place in NY’s fourth-largest city in the aftermath of a 1985 federal court ruling (stemming from a 1980 suit filed by the NAACP) that determined the city had effectively segregated itself. The show tracks from 1987 to 1993 as circumstances finally came to a head, and class and racial tensions boiled over during the process of creating an integrated affordable housing plan.
Like Wyatt, Nick Wasicsko, newly elected mayor and window into Yonkers’ social experiment, finds himself in over his head but quick. In the process, Simon crafts a story around a reluctant hero, and, in doing so, creates a much different kind of central character than that which is common in this modern, many would argue Golden Age, of serialized TV. Like many an HBO protagonist, he’s something of an antihero, yes, but he’s a strangely ineffectual, passive, meagre central figure, paralyzed by forces beyond his control. Good intentions are not enough in Simon’s world(s), and Show Me a Hero is no different. Wasicsko is the eye of the storm, but his agency is muted and his affiliations and intentions are imprecise. Ruthlessness and narcissism is a quality that so often overwhelms from the inside out in TV narratives. Here, it flows from outside in, as an uncontrollable tide, a byproduct of innate, long-in-the-works failings. In the first episode of the miniseries (and again at the midway point and at the end), we first see our protagonist in crisis—bleary-eyed, Maalox tumbling from the glove box, beeper incessantly showing 911. He’s unresponsive and panicked.
He’s a reluctant champion, myopic but not villainous, and weary of it all before he really gets rolling on anything. His slumped shoulders, defeated attitude, and premature disillusionment don’t jive with traditional heroic personas. He is law-abiding (he’s a lawyer and soon-enough mayor, after all) and he finds himself having to defend court decisions to an increasingly aggressive populous, but this is only after he stakes his career in opposition to the law, grasping at low-hanging fruit to become the youngest mayor in the country. His slogan of “Don’t Get Mad, Get a New Mayor” is an instructive flattening of what he represents and where he stands from the outset, an appeal for a short-term solution rather than trenchant introspection that reduces Network’s famous line to a passive, prosaic inanity.
Ours is the era of the antihero. Sure, this character type has basically always been around, but never has it been explored with such consistency and depth as in the past decade-plus, nor has it been the focus of such extensive and focused examination. Antiheroes are archetypal; they’re counterpoints of ‘Ideal Heroes’ wherein the darker recesses of humanity bubble up or are barely suppressed. Narcissism, Machiavellianism, self-preservation, and even psychopathy seep in and complicate clean moral dichotomies. Film and television of the past decade has taken particular pleasure in plying at this definition. But, antihero arcs have tended in two directions. Most often, the arc of the antihero tends toward redemption, beginning with a recognizably antagonistic personality type and eating away at this foundation in search of a humane core. Or, the arc takes the opposite approach, starting with a morally righteous, or at least neutral, individual with whom we can relate, and gnawing at the recognizable qualities until the character threatens to become alienating. Simon’s navigation is more undulating and there are no breadcrumbs. “I don’t believe in perfect villains or perfect heroes,” said Simon, “what we think is the ‘Hero’s Journey’ is actually not recognizable once you get down to real people; it’s more complicated than that.”
As stoic antagonist/activist Judge Leonard B. Sand similarly, succinctly summarizes in the first part of the series, “our object is not to create martyrs, or heroes; our object is to get this housing built.” Unfortunately, this ideal is obviously not suited to a reality in which people invariably construct categories to swiftly make sense of such byzantine affairs. We, as the viewers of Show Me a Hero, experience in a manner similar to the various factions in the program—we like narrativity and we cling to its tenets vehemently, casting character-types in line with our particular vantage. Within the world of the show, the perspectives and entrenched interests are so scattered that the interpretation of who is a villain and who is a martyr and who is the eventual hero varies wildly. We are allowed a privileged view from on high, but limitations at ground-level hindering understanding and molding opinion are always evident by design. Imaginary barriers are all over this world. Simon is clearly interested in how made-up boundaries become real, ingrained, tangible divides, and how these divides in turn feed back into, reinforce, and justify imaginary boundaries. There are various stages, and players, and back stages, and the levels of access betwixt and between shape and inform perspective and opinion. Self-preservation is a primary instinct and rears its head in near every corner of society.
It can be thrilling and enlivening to see charismatic protagonists willfully buck morality and evade consequence; there’s real desire underlying this position of surrogacy that speaks to how we feel about our organization in communities. Still, the schematic of the antihero narrative is all off in Show Me a Hero. We are guided to engage with the narrative on a moralistic, polemical plane, but the center is stifled and non-confrontational, creating a dissonance and frustration at the center of the show. Wasicsko is not a traditional arbiter of justice—there’s no sense of romantic nobility in the work he’s doing. In trying to please all, he pleases no one and makes enemies on all sides. When faced down by the belligerent middle and upper-class citizenry, he defers to the legal standing rather than trying to persuade by chipping at the rocky foundation of their thinly-veiled prejudice. He has a reelection campaign (several, actually) to run, after all, so he needs to sit on the fence as much as possible.
The particulars of the environment, and the way it is sectioned, segmented, and controlled is vital to shaping relations and molding sub-communities. Fittingly, but tragically, the furious opponents of desegregation never interact with the people they’re trying to keep out of their neighborhoods. Their experience of life in ‘the projects’ is mediated through the selective camera of Councilman Spallone, for one, eliding the relatable human moments that abound, and never penetrating the surface to see the personal dramas going on inside the tenements. Similarly, the city’s politicians are completely insulated, and view the issue at the center from a purely political standpoint. Wasicsko is no different on this count, and this is the fragile core that situates him as a troubling central figure. Such is the power of the medium to suggest that all is connecting while keeping segments firmly divided.
Strangely enough, in the character of Nick Wasicsko, I’m reminded of Die Hard by way of Patton Oswalt. In the great coffee-table book Inventory, Oswalt guest-contributes a list pinpointing 6 quiet film revolutions. Of them, John McClane’s passivity in John McTiernan’s film is particularly relevant here. Throughout the course of the classic actioner, he solicits outside help from various authorities numerous times. As he puts it, “the hero tries to sit out the action.” He’s not a hero waiting for the opportunity to come to the rescue; he’s a reluctant, often begrudging participant. He’s forced into a corner and happens to come out an action icon. Wasicsko was not so fortunate in his fate. Increasingly marginalized from the main plotline as the housing project takes shape, he becomes more and more desperate and resorts to a series of easy answers. The Great Man theory of history proves to be a fallacy in Show Me a Hero, and such is the point. “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy,” said Fitzgerald. Becoming a hero is just not an option in politics.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.