Six years in the life of Yonkers NY, surrounding the building of court-ordered low-income housing for black/hispanic residents in the white parts of town. Lots of scenes in city council meetings and offices, places which don’t necessarily make for great TV viewing, and of course the local bars where David Simon characters always meet to make the real decisions.
The less-engaging side of the series is about local politics with Nick (Oscar “Llewyn Davis” Isaac, who had an epic 2015) as our protagonist. He’s the title hero, though his investment in desegregating Yonkers seems a far distant second to his self-centered political aspirations, which take off when he becomes an unlikely young mayor, swept into office (replacing Jim Belushi) to fight the desegregation, but finding himself having to defend it. Sure, Nick has morals, but his “doing the right thing” is meant to keep the city from going bankrupt from federal fines, not to bravely and singlehandedly defeat racism. And though he turned out to be the mayor the town needed at that particular time, he’s quickly run out of office by arrogant bastard Alfred Molina, and Nick’s political dreams turn to despair, feeling that he’d won a great victory, but a victory the angry residents would never recognize.
The rest of the show follows prospective residents of the new townhomes, detailing their individual lives and travails. Among the indifferentiated mob of white residents who show up to town hall meetings screaming about their property values is Mary (Catherine Keener), who’s representative of the gradual acceptance of the new housing. When the houses finally go up and families move in, Mary is coerced (by Clarke Peters, Det. Lester Freamon) to join a committee to meet with the residents and help them adjust – and help their bitter white neighbors adjust as well.
“We’re not prejudiced. Anyone is welcome to live in my neighborhood if they have the money.”
Most of the future residents we follow are women in trouble. Doreen (Natalie Paul)’s man is a drug dealer with asthma – and we know what happens to movie characters with asthma, so soon she’s a single mom, hooked on the crack. Norma (LaTanya “wife of Samuel L.” Jackson) was a nurse until she loses her sight due to diabetes, is helped out by her son Brother Mouzone. Carmen (Ilfenesh Hadera, currently on the Paul Giamatti show Billions) is from Dominican Republic, tries going back there but can’t make ends meet in either country. Billie (Dominique Fishback, soon appearing with D’Angelo Barksdale in another period New York David Simon miniseries, The Deuce) gets pregnant (a bunch of times) by petty criminal (later major criminal) John (Jeff Lima of Half Nelson), who spends half the show in prison.
Meanwhile, Nick will do anything to get back into office, including getting his wife (Carla Quevedo) fired and turning on his oldest council friend Winona Ryder. But he’s not exactly beloved around Yonkers, having sided with the federal enemy. The quiet unsung heroes here are the smart federal specialists (housing experts Peter Riegert and Clarke Peters, and judge Bob Balaban) manipulating a belligerent town towards social change.
Molina don’t give a shit:
Some awful hair and suits, gradually getting more tolerable as the horrors of the 1980’s fade away. Lots of Bruce Springsteen and a good Steve Earle tune used as theme song. Sadly, only one use of the word “mook”. Movies often start at the end (I have a starts-at-the-end tag on the blog), but this one repeats its suicidal-Nick-in-the-cemetery finale at the beginning AND in the middle.
Mostly this got deservedly great reviews, though the Haggis-haters at Slant tore it apart (I’ll agree with the line “Keener dons ridiculous old-lady drag”). Presumably they didn’t tear up, as I did, at the final episode: the joy and terror felt by the new residents about their neighborhood, Nick’s strangled cry for help before heading to the cemetery, the horrified look Winona Ryder gives Nick’s widow at the funeral, and the thaw in hostilities between new neighbors represented by Poodle Lady (played by the director’s ex-wife).