'Show Me a Hero' shows how to make compelling, socially relevant, great TV

"Show Me a Hero" is as good as television gets.

When David Simon first contacted William F. Zorzi in the fall of 2001 about the book "Show Me a Hero," Simon's former Baltimore Sun colleague says he was mainly annoyed.

"I was on the desk and on deadline at The Sun," said Zorzi, who was then working as an assistant city editor.

"Could you [expletive] call at a more inconvenient time?" he remembers asking Simon, who had already left the paper to write for television. "Clearly, you've not been doing this very long or you've forgotten what it was like."

But when Simon called back three weeks later, Zorzi still had not read the book. He couldn't even remember the title.

"Well, you better read the [expletive] thing," Zorzi quotes Simon as saying after he repeated the title, "because we're going out to HBO in three weeks."

Not only did Zorzi read journalist Lisa Belkin's non-fiction book about a community-wrenching housing desegregation battle in the late 1980s in Yorkers, N.Y., he came to live it for the next 13 1/2 years.

The veteran political reporter quit The Sun in 2002, went to Yonkers to "re-report" the book, and has been working on the project on and off ever since. Off includes three seasons on Simon's "The Wire" as a writer, including the final year of episodes in which he also played himself onscreen as a Sun reporter named Bill Zorzi.

The result of that kind of commitment shows in virtually every frame of this six-hour HBO miniseries that speaks to our post-Ferguson-post-Freddie-Gray America like no other work on TV — or in any other form of art so far.

The miniseries, written and produced by Simon and Zorzi and directed by Academy Award-winner Paul Haggis, is so far above anything else on TV right now that I can't find contemporary productions with which to compare it. I have to go back to a miniseries like Simon's "The Corner" (2000) or a feature film like "The Deer Hunter" (1978) for an appreciation of what this trio and their co-workers have accomplished.

On one level, "Show Me a Hero" is the compelling and ultimately tragic story of a young, self-made man, Nick Wasicsko, who is on the rise in Yonkers, a three-fourths majority-white city of about 200,000 north of the Bronx.

When the film opens in 1987, Wasicsko is a 27-year-old lawyer and Yonkers city councilman.

By the end of the first two episodes, he's the youngest mayor of a major American city. But he's also facing a lawsuit brought by the NAACP and the U. S. Department of Justice aimed at desegregating housing that will tear the community apart and ultimately shred his personal life.

Wasicsko's narrative arc is more than engaging enough as derived from Belkin's compelling book. But the Simon-Zorzi scripts and a riveting performance by Oscar Isaac ("Inside Llewyn Davis") make Wasicsko feel even more like the kind of character they write great American novels about. He has that many layers, contradictions, flaws and possibilities.

(Belkin's title comes from the author of one of those great American novels, F. Scott Fitzgerald, saying, "Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy.")

From his working-class roots and deep insecurities, to his irresistible optimism, jangled energy, affection for guns and desperate need for love, Isaac's Wasicsko is a one-man course in American studies. I have not been able to get him out of my head since screening the miniseries two weeks ago.

The comparisons that come to mind are Robert DeNiro in "The Deer Hunter" and Al Pacino in "Serpico" (1973). Wasicsko has that kind of big-city, East-Coast anger and edge eating at him. An Emmy hardly seems enough to reward the kind of performance Isaac delivers.

But there are other outstanding efforts as well.

Catherine Keener has what is probably the toughest acting assignment in playing Yonkers resident Mary Dorman, whom Zorzi described as one of the angry white "faces of opposition" to the desegregation plan. Her journey to tolerance, acceptance and finally what appears to be friendship with her new court-mandated townhouse neighbors is a revelation. She plays the transformation from hate to acceptance and even enlightenment in tiny, incremental moments, which makes it all the more believable and powerful.

Winona Ryder and Alfred Molina, as Yonkers city council members, and LaTanya Richardson-Jackson and Ilfenesh Hadera, as housing project residents, also turn in exceptional supporting work.

One of the triumphs of the script is how seamlessly it meshes the central narratives of Wasicsko and the battle to desegregate with the stories of four women of color struggling to overcome the danger and dysfunction that surround them in rundown, low-income housing projects in West Yonkers. For them, the new court-ordered townhouse units appear to be the Promised Land — if only they can get in.

Give credit to director Haggis, who knows a little bit about multiple storylines after writing and directing the feature film "Crash," for the finely honed pace as multiple storylines are juggled and intertwined. His overall direction — including the way he and director of photography Andrij Parekh visually define Yonkers in terms of social class and geography — gives "Show me a Hero" the texture and depth of a feature film.

While the storylines and the performances should be more than enough to keep viewers locked in for the three Sunday nights on which "Show Me a Hero" will air starting Aug. 16, it's the sociology and resonance with America today that ultimately make this such a special TV production.

"It does deal with race, and I don't think we've got that figured out here in these United States," Zorzi says with understatement when asked about the relevance of "Show Me a Hero."

In the wake of the Baltimore riots in April, media were filled with stories revisiting Baltimore's history of racial segregation as context for what's happening today. But such residential segregation has also been a national pattern with layers upon layers of generational resistance to change in many cities — and the mainstream media haven't been talking nearly enough about that.

HBO's dramatization of the battle in Yonkers chronicles what a monumental effort it took to get just a couple of hundred townhouses built in a white, middle-class neighborhood. The story starts in 1987 and ends in 1993, but the case against the city was not settled until 2007.

"The particulars of Yonkers were all peculiar to the Yonkers case, but I think the notion of segregation and the reaction to integration, especially when it comes to 'social engineering,' is applicable in any number of Rust Belt or post-industrial American cities," Zorzi said.

Hearing protesters in the miniseries chanting, "No justice, no peace," will surely trigger memories of the post-Freddie-Gray demonstrations for some viewers. But Zorzi says both sides were chanting it in Yonkers in the 1980s.

"Show Me a Hero" resonates with vital conversations in the country today, ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates' characterization of persistent and pernicious housing discrimination in "The Case for Reparations," to the ways in which immigrants are being characterized on the campaign trail by presidential candidates this summer.

Once you get involved in the struggle of Carmen Reyes (Hadera), an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who is working full time and raising three children, you will never again accept one-dimensional answers about people from Latin America who are coming to this country looking for a better life. One brilliant detail: She buys a pair of new pots but keeps them in the box until the day she can move into new housing that she feels is worthy of her family.

Ditto for the journey of Norma O'Neal (Richardson-Jackson), who is losing her sight from diabetes but can't get the visiting-nurse help she needs because healthcare providers are afraid to visit her housing project.

All storylines are ultimately unified by the symbolism of home.

"People just want a home, right? It's the same for everybody," Wasicsko says to his future wife, Nay (Carla Quevedo), as they look at the house of his dreams on a little hill in Yonkers. The miniseries' last poetic image of that home will break your heart.

The core of "Show Me a Hero" is that simple — and profound.

And the storytelling is powerful enough to make the experience of watching the characters' journeys to find homes transformational. Understanding what we share with others at the deep, psychic level of values and dreams can go a long way in changing attitudes about superficial differences.

As Zorzi's nearly 14-year journey with "Show Me a Hero" nears its end, he acknowledges that there were times he wondered if it would ever make it to the screen.

Now, he's heading into another HBO production with Simon, a pilot for a series about life on Capitol Hill. Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, is a co-producer on the project that was announced last week by HBO.

Zorzi's also watching with a mixture of amazement and bemusement as the product of all his effort gets marketed in the great American pop culture machine on the eve of its debut.

"I feel like a bumpkin," the 60-year-old resident of Baltimore's Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood said. "I feel like I just came off the turnip truck. I see these things where they say to me, 'We're putting up 60-story posters of Oscar Isaac in Times Square.' And I'm like, ... 'Are you kidding me?' I'm like, 'That's unbelievable.'"

No, not unbelievable. That's the way it's done at the high end of commercial American television. And the product Zorzi, Simon and Haggis created is worth every marketing dollar and then some to attract the largest possible audience.

"Show Me a Hero" is as good as television gets.

David.zurawik@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/davidzurawik

 

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On TV

"Show Me a Hero" premieres 8 p.m. Aug. 16 on HBO.

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