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Television David Simon’s epic tragedy on public housing in New York

David Simon is still a journalist. He tumbled out of the profession years ago, but he's still got a foot in it. The creator of The Wire always talks about that in interviews. But it's not just talk; he means it.

As soon as he sits down to chat for the allotted time about his new HBO mini-series Show Me a Hero (airs Sunday, Aug. 16, HBO Canada), his demeanour is not that of some famous TV writer and showrunner, busy plugging his new thing. He wants to know where you're from, what paper you write for and what's the state of print journalism in that place. He asks more questions. He says, "hmmm," in response to the answers, as if he'd like to talk more about that but the time's already running out and, reluctantly, he's got a show to promote.

Show Me a Hero is an exquisite companion piece to The Wire. At six hours – two episodes every Sunday over three weeks and directed by Paul Haggis – it isn't as sprawling or dense as The Wire. It is, he says ruefully, "Six hours about public housing in New York."

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It is that, but what an epic narrative, a tragedy anchored in timeless themes of hubris and overreach, and specifically what ails contemporary, today's-news America.

Based on the book by the former New York Times reporter Lisa Belkin, the series has twin stories. It is first about Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), who ran for mayor of Yonkers in the early 1980s, at the age of 28, and won. What he didn't grasp was that his election wasn't an endorsement of him. It was a rejection of the sitting mayor who had decided not to fight a court decision to end years of public housing segregation in Yonkers. The public wanted Wasicsko to stop poor black families from moving into their neighbourhoods.

What ensues in a finely defined municipal-politics story is actually a class and race war. Wasicsko doesn't want it, but is swept up in it. It destroys him. At times, the drama looks like a newspaper report on an especially rancorous local council meeting that's been brought to life by excellent actors. It feels stunningly authentic.

"The journalistic impulse is what makes me want to work in television," Simon declares quietly. "If I can just get the argument I want out front, that's good. If something gets off the entertainment pages and onto the Op/Ed pages I feel like I've done something subversive. But achieved something."

The "argument" he means is, he says, "What defines our society. And what has defined our society is fear and money. We used to be able to share in this country. Or at least the ideal was that we would share the country with each other."

If that sounds gloomy, it is meant to. Simon is a realist, his views based in repeated observation. "The somewhat shocking thing is that I was supposed to make Show Me a Hero right after I made The Corner for HBO and before I made The Wire. I had the rights to the book. "After The Wire, I made Generation Kill, because the Iraq war was the dominant news story. Then I made Treme, because Katrina and what happened in New Orleans was the No. 1 issue. It turns out that the core story in Show Me a Hero was relevant all the time. Its relevance never faded away.

"The turmoil in American life today, what we see in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston is the way things are. Call me a pessimist, but we're not going to immediately solve this, the racial dynamic in America. Whenever anybody is obliged to deal with the pathology that is race in America, the dynamics of this story, of Yonkers and the fight over public housing, is repeated over and over again."

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Simon declines to be simplistic in his thinking or his TV dramas. He declines to paint those who objected to black and Latino families moving into Yonkers neighbourhoods, as one-note racists. "I don't begrudge the truth of the fear that those white residents of East Yonkers felt when they were told this was coming, that the court had determined that this was the remedy. But it's one thing to acknowledge the fear, and then, it's another thing to suggest that the fear itself is what's supposed to guide us as a country or as a society.

"This story has become allegorical to our national political paralysis. Nobody wants to tell the voters what they don't want to hear. We hear a lot of talk about liberty and freedom, but not about responsibility."

It also bothers him that the issues behind what happened in Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston emerge as a surprise to politicians and the media. He says the "surprise" occurs because coverage of local issues and institutions isn't there in the media.

"Quotidian attention to the systematic – what regional and local newspapers used to provide – that's been mostly eviscerated. People used to work on those beats. Covering councils, covering deeply local issues. It was their livelihood. We still cover the White House, we cover conflagrations like riots, but we don't do day-to-day attention to the local, the institutions that govern people's lives. Reporters used to call 'bullshit' on local politicians. Now they don't.

"The idea that a thousand bloggers are a thousand points of light and can force a police department to reveal its policies and failings, that is delusional."

The second story thread in Show Me A Hero (the title is taken from F. Scott Fitzgerald's phrase, "Show me a hero and I'll show you a tragedy") involves the poor families who eventually move into the much-disputed affordable housing in Yonkers. They are people who have no control over their lives and are at the mercy of politicians. In that aspect, the mini-series has the intense, inner-city flavour of The Wire.

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And it is in those lives that Simon sees hope. "In metropolitan areas where the demographics change, the future is going to belong to individuals and groups who are there, invested in the community. The future is with those who are capable of operating where power is shared, where white privilege and assumptions of an enduring white majority no longer apply."

There are no scenes of cops and criminals in conflict in Show Me a Hero. No conventional heroes, let alone super-heroes. Yet, like everything Simon has created, the series resonates loudly beyond its small scale. It's about a country and it is as corrosive as it is compelling. The journalist in him made it that way.

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