On one side of the parkway in Yonkers, a single mom and her children take the stairs to their apartment because the building dealer’s doing business in the elevator. Doreen and Skip are expecting their first child, and Skip—an under-treated asthmatic—is desperate for enough money to attend school. On the other side, at a Yonkers City Council meeting, concerned citizens have come to speak up for their neighborhoods by shouting down the new mayor. The threat: 200 units of low-income housing that will integrate their neighborhoods with these unwanted. A man grabs the mic for an impassioned, interrupted plea: “We’re not prejudiced, we just object—!”

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Early reviews have suggested that one of the successes of Show Me A Hero is how dramatic it manages to make a story of housing regulation—with the implication that such things are inherently dull. That’s a breezy read on the topic. Certainly David Simon, no stranger to examining complex systems in The Wire, offers every reason this housing is a life-or-death matter for the people who need it—the same people who are largely powerless within the local political system, full of white men whose main concern is that none of the housing lands in their districts. It’s a knot of personal projects and traded favors that runs up hard against an immovable judicial force and is unequipped to face the public outcry. (The about-face of the unseen cardinal in the face of a congregation boycott is a reminder that not even the Lord is immune to budget pressures.)

It’s depressingly easy to see the ways in which Show Me A Hero reflects the present day. Racial tensions mirrored along economic and geographic lines, segregation in letter-of-the-law versus practice, the social complexity of community planning, power games that redraw districts and change a political landscape, the psychology of defensible space, and the effects and efficacy of progress imposed from without: It’s all here. The series’ overarching hope will rest on the ephemeral promise that this is the story of a storm before the calm. The overarching pathos, which is already working up a head of steam, will rest on how closely the past reflects the present.

And every moment, the series depends on the mayor himself. Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), trying to make Yonkers comply with the court order at the expense of his mental health, is the pragmatic choice to be the story’s center. Isaac, in a performance that’s Emmy-worthy even in the first hour, brings Nick’s complexities to life with his usual lived-in grace. He’s a man with no particularly noble intent, having to enact a progressive measure with far-reaching implications. In these early hours, he seems too poleaxed to have much personal opinion about it. And Isaac’s deeply human Nick is fascinating both for how telling he is in small beats and how much of him is still a mystery. That’s by design. This is the crucible that will define him.

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At this point, the people on the other side of the parkway are strangers to him. If he comes to believe in this cause for its own sake, though, it might be built on sheer resentment of the knee-jerk hatred of Yonkers’ white majority, already so visceral in its determination to keep out Those People (not that they’re racist!) that it’s enough to make a man take up a cause in opposition. And though it’s hard to watch, some of the best and most damningly honest moments are the coded, subsumed racism from people who genuinely think they’re just defending their peace of mind. In between chats about how they’re being robbed of their peace of mind by “that Jew judge,” they attend Council meetings to throw diapers, shout down the proceedings, and tell Nick his father would be ashamed of him. (That last insult is hurled by Catherine Keener as Mary, a standout among a great cast. She’s being set up to be an awakening conscience emerging from the hateful crowd, and judging from the phone call scene with Isaac at the end of the second episode, that dynamic will be interesting to watch.)

It’s a credit to the series that so many characters are well-sketched in a handful of quick appearances. There’s a refreshing lack of table-setting or pointed exposition and a clear attempt to provide the kind of expository dialogue that’s naturalistic enough to feel like a real conversation and not a TV Conversation. That said, this evening doesn’t give us much sense of their personalities beyond their plights. I suspect they’ll solidify later, but there’s too much political ground to be laid yet. Slow-burn veteran David Simon and journalist/screenwriter William Zorzi are clearly aware of the story’s complexity and timeliness, and they use the narrative confidence they brought to The Wire to set up this inferno in small glimpses at a leisurely pace. Two hours of setup are handled so deftly that every bureaucratic eddy takes on meaning. And Paul Haggis brings a light touch to the direction. Long-tail foreshadowing and cut-to conversations create a dread that crests with every City Council meeting—and those arrive more and more frequently, like the tide coming in.

But Show Me A Hero isn’t without a streak of grim humor. When Nick’s discussing the first blush of the news about the ruling, his first concern: “They can’t blame me, right?” The silence that follows lasts past meaningful, into winky, and back again as the usual state of historical fiction reasserts itself. We know the bigots are on the wrong side of history, but that won’t do him any good as he faces them down—and from the series’ opening minutes, we already know the toll it will take on him. It’s one of the many smart ways Show Me A Hero uses the political period piece formula as shorthand—like the brief, nearly Impressionistic scenes of the public housing residents, which are stylized without feeling forced because we already know the stakes. In a story about property, poverty is inherently tragic. (The downside to that stylization: Tragedy is all we know of some residents so far, so we’re still at a bit of a remove, but the nice thing about a story with such a grip on pacing and tone is that we trust we’ll get closer.)

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Show Me A Hero is a series well aware of how the past bursts with a sense of the inevitable. My favorite moment of the whole thing might have been the bleeding audio of a phone ringing for over a minute underneath the volume of Nick’s election celebration. The bad news is already coming for him—and judging by these episodes, it’ll be a gripping, fascinating struggle.

Stray observations

  • Opening your soundtrack with Springsteen is a bold move (made both less and more so by the fact that he appears at intervals of about 20 minutes all night), but if you must open with Springsteen, make it “Gave It A Name,” I guess.
  • Though the ensemble behind Nick is still doing a little thankless setup work here and there, it’s an amazing cast. Bob Balaban gets the lion’s share of the work this week as the man driving the overarching plot, and he’s dryly sublime as usual. But there’s not a dud in the bunch, from Alfred Molina to LaTanya Richardson-Jackson to Peter Riegert. I look forward to seeing more of everyone as the miniseries lets them stretch their legs.
  • It’s hard to say at this point whether the beat of commiseration between Nick and Vinni (Winona Ryder) was foreshadowing on her part or his, but it was a great scene—an uncomfortable meeting between a woman whose political ambition and depression are refreshingly bald, and Nick (already sensing the change in the wind), who looks like he wants nothing more than to flee.
  • “Not in my backyard! … That is actually my backyard.”
  • “Councilman Longo, what the fuck.” Oscar Isaac, in a strong bid for Best Line Reading Of 2015.

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