Friday, February 12, 2016

Box Set Blues: Show Me a Hero

One of the nice things about HBO (and my extension, Sky Atlantic, who has all it's content in the UK) is that it's invested in quality television across a wide variety of taste. It's got a juggernaut in Game of Thrones, of course, but it's also got a bunch of other stuff from dumb and loud to social realist, all with solid production values and talent. It's clearly a concious decision to keep on board a diverse platform, and keep on low-viewership creators as prestige signings, so it can point to them as proof of it's upmarket credentials. One of these, I've always felt, is David Simon, most famous for The Wire, the show everyone watched on DVD, but more recently Treme, which no-one really watched at all (despite it being pretty good). His latest show for HBO was a 6-part drama about social housing in Yonkers; Show Me a Hero

The story behind Show Me a Hero is a long-running court case that started in the late 1980s, about social housing policy in Yonkers, New York. The city was fighting a ruling that they had to spread their social housing around the city, building plots mixed in with owner-occupied areas rather than coralling it all in sink-hole estates. Very quickly you can see how this becomes an angry mix of class, race, social engineering and raw politics, and the show centres around Councilman (and later Mayor) Nick Wasicsko and his journey through the crisis. There is also a wider cast of characters from both the legal and social fronts as the story moves through a period of about 5 years. 

I'm still not too sure what I think of the show. Moment by moment, scene by scene, it's a great body of work. Oscar Isaac especially, is uttery fantastic as Wasicsko, troubled, sometimes idealistic, sometimes pragmatic and cynical, a really fantastic portrayal. All the performances are good, as you'd expect from this sort of show, of course, but a lot of the characters fade in and out around him, vanishing for a stretch and coming back. That starts to be a problem for me when you get to the characters away from the politics, which starts to undermine the whole show. 

With so much of Wasicsko's story tied up in City Hall, Show Me a Hero needs to show what is happening on the ground as the contentious housing moves forward. It does this with a collection of characters from both the white, middle-class oppostion and the black, working-class individuals who carry the hopes of a better life in better houses. It's this set of characters that don't work as well for me - each has their own, contained arc through 6 episodes, but they rarely intersect, espcially in the early going, so each arc feels undercooked and thin. Again, individually good stuff, but never quite joining up. 

And that's the thing overall, I think. So much of Show Me a Hero is excellent - the direction, acting, script, everything. Individual performances and scenes and key relationships are gripping and insightful. The whole story works as cross-sectional image of dysfunctional city government, and keeps it's story on-track and clear, whislt dealing with a complex issue. But somewhere along the line it just doesn't quite meet in the middle, as far as I can judge. It's good - maybe even great - in places, but missing something, and I can't put my finger on what. And that question, of why didn't I like it more, left me more frustated at the series than I should be.