UK TV review: Show Me a Hero, Episode 1
Josh Slater-Williams | On 17, Aug 2015Reading time: 6 mins
Already seen Episode 1? Read on for spoilers.
For those well acquainted with past HBO series or miniseries (co-)written or (co-)produced by David Simon, the opening scene of his newest project, Show Me a Hero, may throw you off guard just a tad.
The pilots of Simons’ series tend to open with a grand mission statement for what will follow, whether succinctly getting across a major theme or engulfing you in an atmosphere. Generation Kill, set in Iraq during the American invasion of 2003, begins with an explosive scene of desert combat, while Treme, a portrait of post-Katrina New Orleans, kicks off with a parade of musicians and revellers in an invigorating set piece that, right off the bat, communicates the part the music of New Orleans will play in the series. The Wire, meanwhile, opens with what’s become an iconic sequence in the 13 years since it first aired: Officer McNulty (Dominic West) sitting on the street with the friend of a murdered young man known as “Snot Boogie”, discussing why they always let the guy play in their craps game when he would always try to steal the money, an act that got him killed on this occasion. The man’s answer? “This America, man.”
What these three sequences have in common, beyond just being effective attention-grabbers, is that each concerns a sense of camaraderie, or at least a burgeoning connection between multiple parties. In contrast, Show Me a Hero’s pre-credits scene involves a lone figure seemingly at wits’ end. Largely dialogue-free (bar an “Oh God”, not long before a spot of vomiting occurs), the scene relies on carefully composed framing and the star’s physical performance, rather than dialogue, to get things across.
The star in question is Oscar Isaac, who we’ll later discover is playing 27-year-old politician Nick Wasicsko. The year is 1987. We see him, in green jumper and jeans rather than the suit wear he’ll have for much of the episode, drive up to a cemetery all dishevelled and sit rather solemnly against a gravestone. The pager he has left in the vehicle, meanwhile, goes off like mad almost immediately after he departs, and we see multiple attempts at contact from 911 amass on the device’s screen. The closest thing to camaraderie this protagonist has is with the deceased, while the reasons people are trying to engage with him surely can’t be good. If this in media res opening to Show Me a Hero doesn’t necessarily convey an obvious thematic thrust, it at least sets up a definite downside to Nick’s subsequent climb up the political ladder.
A montage set to a Springsteen song gives viewers a sense of the show’s location: Yonkers, New York, where a court order to build affordable housing there tore the city apart in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with feuds regarding race and class flaring up. With an election approaching, Democrat councilman Nick is pushed to run for mayor against Republican Angelo Martinelli (James Belushi), who’s already in the position in his sixth term. The episode, which speeds through several months, is largely concerned with Nick’s election campaign, as well as a burgeoning romance with co-worker Nay (Carla Quevedo). The big focus of Nick’s campaign is a promised resistance to the court-ordered integration of public housing in the city, something Martinelli has deemed a hopeless case and something that will risk the city even more fines.
Among other key figures introduced on the political side of things are Henry J. Spallone (Alfred Molina), a passionately anti-housing member of the City Council, integration-advocating Vinni Restiano (Winona Ryder), and Michael H. Sussman (Jon Bernthal), a civil rights attorney representing the local NAACP chapter, whose members are now world-weary after so many years of failed neighbourhood integration: “They don’t wanna live with us, why should we wanna live with them?”
In the background, you have several individual stories of more ordinary people. These include a visiting nurse, Norma (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), who’s starting to have eyesight troubles due to diabetes, and Alma (Ilfenesh Hadera), an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who’s endlessly working but can still barely support her three children. None of these stories are connected in any clear way, bar two characters passing a campaigning Nick in the street, but in true Simon fashion, they will surely end up just as important to this larger tale as the suited men and women making the decisions.
This pilot episode gets Show Me a Hero off to a strong start, although there are some instances where fears about the other auteur behind the project pop up. Every episode of Show Me a Hero is directed by Paul Haggis, a writer-director behind some particularly heavy-handed, often trite dramas of the last decade (namely Crash). He’s thankfully not on any screenwriting duties for the show, but there’s one scene that ends in a way that screams traditional Haggis more than Simon: it concerns Nick being refused assistance by Martinelli loyalists in the city offices both men occupy. He’s looking to use the copy machine they’re at because his is broken and two secretaries using it suggest they’ll be doing so for hours. Nick, accepting defeat, leaves the room, and we get the point of the scene from their actions – except after Nick leaves, one secretary says to the other: “He’s gonna run against Angelo and get help around here? He’s crazy.” One hopes that’s going to be an isolated blip of hammering to the viewer’s head.
Show Me a Hero is available to watch online in the UK on Google Play, blinkbox, iTunes and Amazon Instant Video.
Spoilers and further consideration
– Show Me a Hero is set to span several years, so, sure enough, Nick has won the mayoral election by episode’s end. Before Martinelli has even officially left the position, however, things are upended for the mayor-elect, as he discovers that the court resistance he campaigned on truly is hopeless, news delivered via lawyer over the phone. That’s certainly not going to go down too well with a lot of the electorate.
– Peter Riegert, as expert planner Oscar Newman, has an absolutely magnificent grey beard/mane in this that makes him look like a lion playing an Old West prospector.
– Show Me a Hero is based on true events and the lives of real political figures in Yonkers. Though the real-life history is just a click away, these weekly reviews will refrain from blatantly foreshadowing events to come, whether victories or tragedies.
Photo: ©2015 Home Box Office, Inc. All rights reserved. HBO® and all related programs are the property of Home Box Office, Inc.