David Simon's America isn't a pretty place.
The former Baltimore Sun reporter has created soaring, passionate works of drama such as The Corner, The Wire, and Treme, TV shows that depict ours as a tragic world radically divided along racial and class lines.
Fueled by sadness, disappointment, and rage, Simon's writing is an elegy to an American dream perverted by selfishness and greed.
Simon revisits these themes in Show Me a Hero, a Swiftian satire about race relations in America made all the more damning because it's based on real events.
A remarkably intelligent if sometimes flat six-part mini-series, Show Me a Hero concerns the housing desegregation scandal that engulfed Yonkers, N.Y., in the 1980s. It premieres with a double episode at 8 p.m. Sunday on HBO.
Fans expecting to tune in Sunday for an action-packed follow-up to The Wire or Generation Kill will be sorely disappointed. Adapted by Simon from the nonfiction book by Lisa Belkin and directed by acclaimed Crash helmsman Paul Haggis, Show Me a Hero tackles one of the most sensational scandals since the civil rights movement, but it's hardly a thriller.
It's a rather sedate, chatty affair with most of the action taking place at city council meetings, around the kitchen table, or on the porch. Every once in a while, the filmmakers go crazy and take us to a park or local watering hole.
Guatemalan actor Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year) leads a large, impressive ensemble cast as Nick Wasicsko, a 28-year-old lawyer who becomes the youngest mayor in America when he takes office in Yonkers in 1988.
Nick's victory is ruined overnight when he finds himself embroiled in a legal, political, and public relations nightmare that almost bankrupts the city and ends his political career.
Nick takes over from Mayor Angelo Martinelli (James Belushi) just as the city has lost a historic, seven-year civil rights lawsuit brought by the NAACP and its crusading lawyer Michael H. Sussman (Jon Bernthal).
Presided over by federal Judge Leonard Burke Sand (Bob Balaban), the court found that for 40 years, city leaders had systematically used federal aid money earmarked for Yonkers' impoverished minorities to keep that population strictly segregated from the rest of the city.
Sand ruled that Yonkers had to begin to redress the imbalance by building 200 units of public housing in its white middle-class section. White residents freaked out. Their representatives on the council balked at the court order. Led by fiery, defiant councilman Henry J. Spallone (Alfred Molina), the council abdicates its responsibility to uphold the law. Sand holds the city in contempt and imposes draconian fines.
So, who's the hero in this story? Is it Nick, who insists the city comply with the court? True to the drama's ironic tone, the young mayor is a reluctant hero, deeply conflicted and really quite passive. Let's not forget, Show Me a Hero gets its title from one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's typically despairing, terse pronouncements: "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy."
Nick does take a stance - but it ends up destroying his life.
What about the poor folk whose fate is being decided in the war between the city and Judge Sand? Though that story takes up most of the run time, Show Me a Hero also introduces a wealth of characters from the city's high-rise projects.
Their stories are told in brief, fragmented snapshots. There's Carmen Reyes (Ilfenesh Hadera), a single mother who has to send her three young children back to the Dominican Republic because she can't afford to keep them. There's Doreen Henderson (Natalie Paul), a teen whose drug-dealer husband dies shortly after their baby is born. And there's Norma O'Neal (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), an aging mother of two who is going blind.
But each snapshot is too brief to let the viewer develop anything but a passing acquaintance with these characters. As a whole, the vignettes don't function as a proper counterpoint to the rest of the drama, which remains oddly lopsided until the final two episodes.
Simon has a remarkable talent for writing dramas in which he always grounds his memorable, idiosyncratic characters in a richly detailed social world.
Ironically, in Show Me a Hero, Simon spends so much energy presenting the different facets of Yonkers as a society that he fails to give sufficient attention to individuals.
Show Me a Hero tells an important story and it tells it well, but it hardly measures up to Simon's best work. This is the kind of drama that should get your blood boiling. But it's presented in a documentary style that is simply too detached and cool.
HBO's Show Me a Hero may have a remarkably large, diverse ensemble cast, but viewers are likely to be struck by one particularly eccentric supporting character: Oscar Newman, who sports a gray-white Abraham Lincoln beard.
Portrayed in the drama by the great character actor Peter Riegert (Dads, One Tree Hill), Newman, who died in 2004 at 68, helped design a series of public and low-income housing projects for the city of Yonkers, N.Y.
Based on a theory called "defensible space," Newman's ideas have been applied by various cities across the country, including Philadelphia, which in the 1990s replaced several high-rise apartment blocks with low-rise apartments and townhouses.
Newman's ideas challenged the prevailing model of public housing that had been in effect since 1949, when cities began erecting high-rises for their poor residents.
"Newman recognized that if you placed poverty-stricken families in a confined space, it would concentrate poverty and increase some of the pathology associated with it [including] crime," said University of Pennsylvania city and regional planning professor John Landis.
In one episode, Newman explains that public housing residents, middle-class renters, and wealthy homeowners alike have the same basic need - to feel they can have a private space they can control for themselves.
"Give people a space of their own . . . and they will upkeep and defend it with pride," he said.
Instead of high-rises, Newman suggested the city build single-family townhouses in small clusters in established, stable neighborhoods.
That would provide families with a place of their own while keeping it connected to neighboring homeowners and the rest of the city.
The psychology at work here is elementary, said designer Julia Vitullo-Martin.
"The idea is that if you're in a space that feels safe and empowering, this will translate into behavior that promotes actual safety around you," said Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association in Manhattan.
"In some ways it's so obvious," she says, "it's sort of ludicrous."