Show Me A Hero: Do You Need An Active Main Character?
By Jacob Krueger
Show Me A Hero: Do You Need An Active Main Character?
Today we’re going to be talking about the new HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero. I’m especially excited to be talking about this miniseries, because it stars Jacob Krueger Studio alum, Laura Gomez! Laura, we’re so proud of you!
But outside of our personal pride in Laura’s accomplishments, it’s worth talking about miniseries because of what writers of all genres can learn from them.
It’s an incredibly exciting time for writers of miniseries. The genre was all but dead in the water a couple of years ago, but recently we’ve seen a resurgence in miniseries sparked by the success of True Detective.
In a way, the miniseries is the ideal form of storytelling for a screenwriter. In feature films, we are limited in many ways by page count, trying to squeeze a life-changing journey into an hour and a half.
But in the world of miniseries, we actually have the one thing that most screenplays don’t have, the thing that novelists are blessed with and screenwriters long for: time.
And because we have time, we are able to explore structure in different ways, and fully capture things like world, complicated, intersecting storylines and multiple characters’ points of view.
It’s not that these things can’t be done in a screenplay. It’s just that when we do them in a screenplay, we severely limit the number of pages we can dedicate to each character.
In a miniseries like Show Me A Hero, we can actually explore these multiple storylines without diminishing our ability to serve our main character.
But the reasons I want to talk about Show Me A Hero go beyond it’s structure as miniseries, beyond its stellar cast, and beyond its extraordinary writers (David Simon of The Wire, and Paul Haggis of Crash who directed every episode).
I want to talk about Show Me A Hero because of the way it chose to break the rules. In fact, Show Me A Hero broke the most profound rule of screenwriting, the first commandment: Thou shalt have an active main character.
Well, Show Me A Hero simply does not.
If Show Me A Hero didn’t work for you, there is a good chance that this is the reason. And if it did work for you, there is a good chance that this is the reason as well.
The choice to have an inactive protagonist is related directly to the theme and the ironic title of Show Me A Hero.
What is brilliant about the journey of Nick Wasicsko, its main character, played by Oscar Issac is precisely that he is not the hero we are longing for…
Now just a warning that there are spoilers ahead.
What’s amazing about the character of Nick Wasicsko, is that Nick is not a hero.
Nick gets elected on a platform about keeping blacks out of a white neighborhood in Yonkers. And he doesn’t get elected on that platform because he necessarily believes blacks should be kept out of white neighborhoods in Yonkers. In fact, he has voted similarly to the incumbent mayor on this issue, in all but one vote. The only difference between Nick and the current mayor is that Nick tried to appeal the decision to bring affordable housing into this white community, while the mayor recognized that it was an unwinnable battle, and chose the pragmatic course of actually governing in light of the decision.
In fact if there is a hero at all in Show Me A Hero, it’s a very minor character of the Judge at the center of the trial.
This is the character that most people would have built a story like Show Me A Hero around. He is the obvious hero, the guy who says “No, you must build these affordable housing units on the white side of town. No I will fine your city into bankruptcy if I have to. No I don’t care if it’s popular.”
Unlike the Judge, Nick cares about only one thing. Nick really wants to be mayor.
So, he gets swept to victory based on what his constituents believe is a moral conviction, but really what is simply a slightly different vote.
And once he’s in power he promptly switches sides.
Now this could be a heroic act; this could be like watching Yitzhak Rabin try to make peace with the Palestinians. But it’s not.
Because the only thing that makes Nick Wasicsko change his mind is the fact that the Judge is not willing to take no for an answer. He changes his mind because he learns that any attempt to appeal is going to lead to inevitable failure, exactly as the former mayor had said. And he changes his mind because he realizes that it’s not politically possible to fight this without bankrupting his town.
In contrast, despite his repugnant views about race, the one politician in the whole mix who is actually taking action based on his moral conviction is Hank Spalone, played by Alfred Molina, the racist, local congressman who is willing to bankrupt his own city to fight for his beliefs.
We might not believe in Hank’s beliefs. I certainly hope we don’t! But nevertheless, here’s a man who’s actually taking a moral stand, just like the Judge is taking a moral stand. Here is a guy who’s acting out of his convictions, just like the Judge on the other side is acting out of his convictions. Whereas for our main character, Nick Wasicsko, the only conviction he’s acting out of is the conviction that he doesn’t have a choice.
In most movies this is the exact opposite of the kind of structure you want to build.
But for fans of Show Me a Hero, the miniseries succeeds not in spite of this unusual structure, but because of it.
The “common wisdom” when developing a structure for a movie like this is to realize at some point in the process that you’ve got to choose an active main character around whom to build your story: “Screw this Nick Wasicsko guy, who doesn’t do anything! Screw this Nick Wasicsko guy who gets rewarded as a forward thinker on race, for simply doing what he’s forced to do. Let’s focus on the Judge, or let’s focus on Hank, or let’s focus on any character who is actually doing something.”
Or alternatively, the “common wisdom” would say: “Well, let’s figure out an arc for Nick. Let’s figure out a structure that does give Nick choices. Let’s figure out without getting away from history. Or let’s look at the real history and find the real choices that Nick actually did make: the real situations in which he could have done one thing but chose to do another.”
But Show Me a Hero does exactly the opposite.
There are moments where Nick does make hard choices that drive the action of the film forward. But even those choices, are generally far from heroic.
For example, Nick makes the decision to drop out of the campaign to get re-elected as Mayor. But not because he believes in the other candidate, not because he believes in the party, not because he believes that this is going to benefit anyone. He does it because it’s politically expedient. Because he believes that he will be rewarded.
Nick, it’s suggested, cheats on his loving wife, the one person who stands by him through just about anything. It’s suggested that he’s cheated on her during political trips (although we never see this happen). And we do see a drunken moment in which he tries to kiss his best friend, Vinni, played by Winona Rider.
And as if that weren’t un-heroic enough, later on, he makes the even more un-heroic decision to betray his best friend and run against Vinni for her seat!
Once again, this decision is not based on principles, not based on anything she’s done or a change in their relationship. He makes this decision based purely on his ambition: his driving need to be in office, to drive his career forward.
In fact, even his final decision, his suicide, is not like a monk setting himself on fire in protest of the Chinese government. This is a man who abandons his wife and kills himself because he can’t handle not being in office. Because he confuses love for votes. Because, as his wife suggests, the only thing that he believes in is himself.
So, how does Show Me A Hero get away with this?
Well, you might argue that it doesn’t. Certainly, some people have. And its place in HBO’s schedule seems to suggest that some HBO executives may feel that it didn’t.
You can argue that it didn’t because there is a strong feeling that Show Me A Hero lacks a certain drive, lacks a certain drum beat that we’ve come to expect in movies and miniseries.
There is a feeling as we watch Show Me A Hero that not much is happening, or if something is happening, it’s happening around the character rather than by him.
There is a feeling in watching Show Me A Hero that not a lot of choices are being made, and that the driving storylines are actually those of the vehemently anti-housing housewife who goes on a journey toward supporting the low-income community, and the stories of the low-income residents who end up moving into those houses.
You could suggest that there is not a lot of action being driven by the main characters and there is not a lot of structure actually happening around the spine of the movie. And this is a challenging thing. So, you could make the argument that Show Me A Hero doesn’t work. And perhaps it even didn’t work for you.
But you can also make the argument that this is exactly what makes Show Me a Hero brilliant. Because like most of David Simon’s work, this is a story about the system.
If you want to learn about TV drama, and you want to fully understand the engine of Show Me a Hero, you can start by studying another David Simon series, The Wire.
The Wire epitomizes the concept that is central to all TV drama, an concept that I hear Steven Molton, who teaches our TV Drama Classes, talk about all of the time: the concept of engine.
The engine of The Wire is a structure in which two out-of-the-box thinkers, one on the legal side and one on the criminal side, come up with a revolutionary idea, only to get crushed by a system over the course of the season.
We watch this structure happen over the course of every single episode and every single season.
And this is why Season 2 of The Wire works, even though so many characters die off in Season 1. The structure, the engine, the drive of the story isn’t based on any one character.
The engine of is based on the idea of out-of-the-box thinkers almost getting out, almost changing society with their ideas, only to be crushed by the system.
(In this way The Wire is the opposite of Game of Thrones. If you’ve seen Season 2 versus Season 1 of Game of Thrones, you saw how challenging it was to get the structure driving again once they’d killed off Ned Stark and once they’d killed off Drogo, the barbarian to whom Daenerys, the dragon lady, is married.)
Most movies are built around the structure of the main character’s choices. So, when you kill off those main characters that structure falls apart. But, David Simon’s work is built in a different way. He’s using a different kind of structure in The Wire, and he’s using a different kind of structure in Show Me A Hero.He’s using a structure built around the system.
In this way, Show Me A Hero is almost a mirror image of The Wire, like the same structure reflected in the opposite direction.
In The Wire, we watch out-of-the-box thinkers strive out of the system and get destroyed by it. Whereas in Show Me A Hero, we watch characters fail to strive against the system, playing inside of the system, while change happens around them and often despite them!
Part of the reason that that works, to the degree that it works, in Show Me A Hero is because it is a miniseries format. The expanded format of the miniseries gives us the freedom to allow the story to feel driven by the secondary characters even though the main character is not really driving the action.
But, the other reason it works in Show Me A Hero is because it is so distinctly tied to what the writer is doing. The “why” of why the writer is writing this miniseries, and the vision and the engine of what the writer is building.
It’s so easy as a writer to get trapped by these ideas of what you should do and what you shouldn’t do, what you must do and what structure must be. But the truth is, any rule in screenwriting cannot be divorced from the question of what purpose that rule serves. What are you using that rule to build?
Breaking the rules does come with a cost. So, if Show Me A Hero felt slow to you, if Show Me A Hero felt unsatisfying to you, if you found yourself longing for Nick to shut up and do something we could believe in, know that you’re supposed to feel that way.
The ironic title of Show Me A Hero is not about David Simon’s belief in the heroism of Nick. It’s not because David Simon believes that that award that Nick won was rightly deserved. It’s because David Simon is asking “How can we find a hero inside a system that looks like this?”
When you’re building a movie, your job is not to replicate the rules that worked for other people.
Your job is to ask yourself “What am I really building? What am I really writing? What is this really about for me?” And then to create your own rules. The rules that will best serve the story that you want to tell.
Those rules become the engine of your story, whether it’s a miniseries, a TV drama or a feature film. Those rules become the simple North Star that you can come back and look to when you’re wondering where you are and what decisions you’re supposed to make.
But those rules never exist in a vacuum. Not even the first commandment, thou shalt have an active main character, exists in a vacuum.
These rules only exist to serve one thing. Your voice as a writer, and the story that you want to tell.
If you want to learn more about writing a TV Drama Series and the structure, the engine, the character and the rules that are going to drive your story I invite you to check out our TV Drama Class with Steve Molton. Its unique format, available in NYC or Live Online, puts you directly in the writer’s room, with Steve playing the role of showrunner, and 12 talented student writers contributing to the plot and structure of each other’s scripts, just like in a professional writer’s room.