With the recently concluded Show Me a Hero, co-writer and executive producer David Simon gave us some of the most thoughtful, deeply felt television of 2015. Ostensibly the story of Nick Wascisko, the 28-year-old local councilman who became the youngest mayor in a major city back in 1987 (the year he was elected to represent the people of Yonkers), HBO’s latest miniseries felt like classic Simon. Classic, not just because it featured some of Simon’s best writing, but also because it brought to mind some of his previous TV work. Specifically harking back to The Wire, Simon’s epic Baltimore chronicle, Show Me a Hero often resembled a six-hour summary of what Simon had to say through five seasons of his most feted series.
In a number of obvious ways, these two shows are very different. Whereas The Wire was set in then-present day (2002-2008) Maryland, Show Me a Hero takes place over seven years in late 1980s/early 90s New York. Moreover, Show Me a Hero is a political drama about the planned construction of desegregated housing in white suburban Yonkers, and not a show about a dysfunctional police unit trying to bring down a vast criminal empire. But then, neither was The Wire ever just a cop show, really. The Wire, as anyone who’s seen it from beginning to end knows, is a living, grand-scale diorama depicting a city and its people.
Over its six episodes, Show Me a Hero similarly revealed itself, gradually, to not be about merely one thing or one group of people, as it was really about a divided community and the social and political problems therein. Like The Wire, Show Me a Hero started off relatively small-scale, before widening out. Show Me a Hero may have begun with a central figure in Wascisko, but by the end it had become a sprawling ensemble piece just like The Wire, with its setting—Yonkers—a microcosm of race, class, and politics in America. Show Me a Hero also deals with social turmoil in a major US city, with non-white communities (cut off by an invisible discriminatory line) in particular afflicted by crime, drugs, and the poverty trap.
There are more specific similarities (beyond the fact that the two shows share several actors). Like Season Three of The Wire, Show Me a Hero charts the rise of a great new hope for politics, one who swiftly finds that his vanity and the inscrutable political machine can overwhelm initial good intentions. Like Season Five, it touches upon how the press can act as a vampiric influence, feeding off public fear. Like Season Four, it illustrates how the young can be inadvertently bound to a fate out of their control, destined to repeat the mistakes of their forebears when in thrall to a system that rarely works in their favor.
As in The Wire, Simon refuses in Show Me a Hero to subscribe to any false TV tropes. Neither show features characters that could be described as simply ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and Simon—as ever—deals in the crushing truth that punishment and reward can be dished out almost at random, with those at the bottom most vulnerable to the worst pain and misery. In The Wire, we watched four schoolboys arbitrarily succumb to good luck and misfortune; in Show Me a Hero, a literal lottery decides who gets to move into the new public housing, and who has to remain in the ghettoized apartment complex that’s become a fortress of squalor.
What’s most devastating about Show Me a Hero is the way Simon portrays some of America’s great problems as cyclical. That Simon’s repeated himself, making essentially the same points across two different shows made seven years apart, increases the sense that things just aren’t moving forward. The frustration is compounded when you realize Simon offers the same solutions in Show Me a Hero as he did in The Wire: the implementation of concentrated social projects already proven to work elsewhere (Hamsterdam in The Wire, desegregated housing in Show Me a Hero), and—not to sound too corny or reductive—the encouragement of conflicting tribes coming together in an attempt to understand one another.
As in The Wire’s finale, there is victory at the end of Show Me a Hero, but it feels compromised. While we see the desegregated housing having a positive impact on the lives of those lucky enough to win that lottery, the cards remain stacked against those unfortunate enough to require the housing in the first place. It’s bittersweet when we’re told at the end of Show Me a Hero’s final episode, “The public housing theories of Oscar Newman are now widely accepted,” because we know racial and class division in America has continued to be a problem regardless. Simon’s own The Wire highlighted that, and now the news near-enough every day reminds us it’s still true.
Ultimately, Show Me a Hero proves Simon’s view on things hasn’t changed—his fundamental view being that things hardly ever really change. He said as much in a recent interview with Indiewire: “You can do this piece at any time and it’s still relevant. Two towns up the Hudson from Yonkers in Tarrytown, the same exact fight is happening right now.” Racial division, a constant throughout both The Wire and Show Me a Hero, is in particular something that Simon sees as largely unchanging: “The thing about race in America, it’s the same narrative over and over again…we are getting better slowly, but it’s so damn slow and the fights are so much the same as they were.”
Despite the seven years that have passed between the last episode of The Wire and now, David Simon—perhaps the greatest modern writer of sociopolitical television—is still having to make the same arguments, still having to highlight the same issues. At the Guardian, Mark Lawson argues that Show Me a Hero, despite its period setting, is entirely relevant to the present, but he’s not entirely correct. Rather, Show Me a Hero would have been relevant in the period it’s set in, 13 years ago when The Wire began, this year, and probably in a fair few years to come. Unfortunately, it’s a show that Simon is probably going to feel the need to keep on making.