Screen Test

Winona Ryder among the stars in public housing drama Show Me A Hero

Winona Ryder and Oscar Isaac star in Show Me A Hero.
Winona Ryder and Oscar Isaac star in Show Me A Hero. PHOTO: HBO

Show Me A Hero is an unsexy debate over public housing and Killjoys a sexier chase for fugitives in space

As premises for television shows go, it is hard to imagine anything less sexy than a debate over public housing.

And if Show Me A Hero did not carry the imprimatur of its creator David Simon - who birthed the venerated drama The Wire (2002 to 2008) - most viewers would whizz past its equally unalluring TV listing, which describes it as a drama about "the notions of home, race and community through the lives of elected officials, bureaucrats, activists and ordinary citizens in Yonkers, NY".

Still, like a horse pill that sticks in your throat as it goes down but is ultimately good for you, it is worth pushing past the discomfort - not to mention a bewildering pilot that borders on incomprehensible - to get to the good stuff in this six-part miniseries, which is based on a true story and directed by another big name, Oscar winner Paul Haggis (Crash, 2004).

First, the background, without which Part 1 is virtually impenetrable: In the 1980s, Yonkers - a mostly white and middle-class city in New York - repeatedly defied a judge who had ordered it to build 200 units of public housing for low-income residents, who were mostly black and Latino. Its newly elected mayor, Nick Wasicsko - played by Oscar Isaac, star of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens - finds himself one of the few voices of reason caught in the middle of an increasingly hysterical and racially charged fight.


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Around him: a baying mob of white residents terrified that "crack jungles", or high-rise residential towers overrun by drug gangs, would sprout up near their homes and drive property values down; city council members who exploited this fear for political gain; a court judge who was having none of it, and imposed crippling fines that would bankrupt the city in weeks if it did not comply; and, finally, the low-income families in desperate need of affordable homes.

The story is based on a 1988 non-fiction book which had the same title - taken from the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy" - but a much better sub-title: A Tale Of Murder, Suicide, Race And Redemption.

And the TV drama holds all this and more, but to get to it, you have to get through the chaos of council meetings, the minutiae of municipal politicking, the details of the legal and constitutional fight, and the intricacies of the public-housing issue itself, as well as the solution that was eventually proposed to build not high- density blocks but "scatter-site" units, spread here and there throughout white neighbourhoods to make them more palatable.

For the show, what makes this palatable is an ensemble cast that does a fine job highlighting the human drama in the story. There is the callow young mayor, who finds himself backed into a corner by his own ambition, and becomes almost an accidental hero in pushing for the housing resolution to be passed; and his allies, who include councilwoman Vinni Restiano, played by a twitchy Winona Ryder.

Other linchpins are the stories of three struggling women from the projects and the contrasting perspective of Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener), one of the white residents opposed to integration.

Yet there are so many interweaving threads, and the camera flits from one to another so quickly it can feel almost annoyingly staccato, and like each vignette, is too brief.

By Episode 2, however, a momentum has been built and the political battle lines become clearer and, as they do, the nuances of the power struggle also become more apparent.

As in The Wire, there is a certain tension between Simon and his co-writers wanting to create a compelling drama, but also being keen to put forth certain political arguments, with the effect that their characters sometimes seem like nothing more than mouth- pieces. But the uncommon insightfulness and lofty ambitions of this drama make it ultimately worthwhile.

In a star system far, far away from Yonkers is a far sexier new show, the science-fiction drama Killjoys, which follows the exploits of a trio of attractive young bounty hunters - or "killjoys", as they are known - as they chase fugitives across a distant planetary system.

Their leader, Dutch (Hannah John-Kamen), is about as far away from Boba Fett as you can get - think La Femme Nikita meets Lara Croft meets Marvel's Black Widow, with bits of wardrobe borrowed from each.

Her second-in-command and Mr Fix-It is John (Aaron Ashmore), whose estranged brother D'avin (Luke Macfarlane) joins the team after they rescue him from being an indentured fighter.

The single most original thing about Killjoys is that it is a woman calling the shots here - that and the occasional lilt of Commonwealth- accented English in this Canadian production. The rest is a lazy cut-and-paste of other well-worn science-fiction, comic-book and other tropes: a vaguely dystopian future society where a rebellion is brewing against a quasi- governmental mega-corporation known as "The Company'', and at least two principal characters tortured by their shadowy pasts - in Dutch's case, a man who destroyed her innocence by training her as a child assassin.

None of it is especially well- written or well-acted. The show clearly wants to be funny and quippy but often misses the mark, the banter between the leads filled with pedestrian barbs and gags that have been done to death.

As smoking-hot as the stars are, there are only that many times we can see D'avin awake all bare- chested and buff from another post-traumatic flashback or Dutch pull a Blue Steel-like pout while taking down a bunch of bad guys in slow motion.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2015, with the headline 'So much drama ScreenTest'. Print Edition | Subscribe