Housing, Heroism, Hypocrisy: David Simon’s Latest Drama Will Not Disappoint

| September 3, 2015

“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy,” F. Scott Fitzgerald.


Nick Rudnik, Valdosta Today Opinion Contributor

Political scientists, myself included, are concerned with how people and societies best govern themselves.  By understanding how we really govern ourselves and taking a hard-nosed look at both agents and institutions, we seek to understand and improve the complex networks of power and hierarchy that allow for greater human flourishing.

Perhaps this is why I so admire the work of David Simon.  A native of Baltimore, Simon spent over a decade at the metro desk of the Baltimore Sun.  In his waning years at the Sun, Simon penned “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” a novel which was later adapted into a hit NBC program.  He later produced four critically-acclaimed dramas for HBO: “The Corner” (2000), “The Wire” (2002-08), “Generation Kill” (2008), and “Treme” (2010-13).

Simon’s work is, in a word, provocative.

Regardless of geography (a street corner in West Baltimore, the scorched battlefields of Iraq, or in disaster-stricken, post-Katrina New Orleans), Simon tells the story of race, class, conflict, and the social institutions that often perpetuate these abstract constructs of inequity and strife.  In “The Wire,” arguably Simon’s greatest masterpiece, he demonstrates that the margin between the Baltimore police, the corner boys, their criminal overlords, and America’s dwindling urban working class is merely a matter of degrees and perspective.

To some, my recounting of Simon’s work thus far is perhaps an atomistic synopsis.  But as “The Wire” demonstrates, Simon is not merely interested in plot, but in illustrating the utter complexity of human social life.

This year, he has added yet another feather to his television hat, HBO’s “Show Me a Hero.”  Based on the 1999 eponymous book, Simon takes us to the raucous streets of late twentieth century Yonkers, between 1987 and 1994.  The drama unfolds in the wake of a federal court ruling to desegregate the public housing units in New York’s fourth largest city.

Though public housing is not typically central to a captivating, seductive television drama, Simon presents a timely narrative highlighting, once again, issues of race and class in advanced industrial society.  Rather than adapting the accepted template of many of today’s political dramas, Simon elects to turn a pluralistic lens on a less than plural society.

Most filmmakers would focus on the politicians and their associates at the nexus of power—city hall.  Most would contribute the majority of camera time to issues central to the plot.  But Simon is not most.

While the critically-acclaimed producer devotes a great deal of screen time to the drama’s reluctant hero, the youthful mayor of Yonkers, Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), Simon above all wants to show us how the institutions of society have become increasingly fossilized, emasculated by an amalgam of pressures—hyperpluralism, federalism, political careerism, moneyed developers and lobbyists, regular old racism, and more.

As with the unfolding, amoralistic drama of “The Wire,” camera time is shared between the powerful and the powerless.  In this way, Simon presents a democratizing narrative in a seemingly undemocratic world.

Above all, “Show Me a Hero,” like all of Simon’s other masterworks, is a piece of art.  In the shadow of the almost evanescing, dying city of Yonkers, Simon confronts his audience with the tough questions of institutionalized racism, reciprocal racial animus, the political football that is public housing, urban politics, and the political consequences of action and inaction.

Simon reminds us that for every tough question, there’s usually a tough answer.

“Show Me a Hero” is both.  It is indeed a tragedy—a preventable, human tragedy on so many levels.  It shows us that at the heart of racism, distrust, suspicion, and political cowardice is the very same emotion: fear.  It is the fear of the other that pervades Simon’s latest drama.  Even if you disagree with the message, you can at the very least consider a perspective different from your own, perhaps even recognize how politicians and policies are often met with lofty optimism and often fail to meet those haughty expectations.

In an age of reality television and banal programming, “Show Me a Hero” rises above the fray. It will make you think, consider, ponder.  It is the thinking man’s drama: timely, provocative, fearless, and a must watch of the summer.

rudnik-thumbnailis currently pursuing a degree in political science with a concentration in American politics at Valdosta State University. Previously, he’s served as a congressional page in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 111th Congress and in the Office of U.S. Congressman Sanford Bishop. Further, Nick has served on staff at an institutional interest group, the Association of American Law Schools, in Washington and has worked in the private sector. He has presented his research, focused primarily on congressional parties and elections, at regional academic conferences and hopes to pursue a graduate degree in political science. Nick is currently completing two manuscripts relating to southern congressional elections and judicial decision-making in the area of campaign finance; he can be contacted via e-mail at narudnik@valdosta.edu. Follow Nick on Twitter: @NickRudnik.

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