In a television climate dominated by Time Lords, fantasy thrones and meth-making chemistry teachers, there’s plenty of space for a more grounded look at 20th-century life. And the go-to guy has to be writer David Simon. From Homicide: Life on the Street via The Wire, The Corner and Treme, this former newspaper journalist is the master chronicler of urban America. His dramas are unflinching in their look at society in crisis, yet immensely humane. And his latest series, co-written with William F Zorzi and directed by Paul “Crash” Haggis, is ticking all sorts of boxes in the States, where racial divisions continue to hit the headlines.
Show Me a Hero, based on a book by Lisa Belkin, is a six-part miniseries based on a true story. In the late 1980s, the city of Yonkers, effectively a suburb of New York, was ordered by a judge to build 200 units of low-income housing in predominantly middle-class white neighbourhoods, with a further 800 affordable housing units to follow. The issue blew up in the face of newly appointed mayor Nick Wasicsko, who faced increasingly ugly opposition both from colleagues on the council and from many residents, who adopted a clearly racially motivated tone in their calls for the ruling to be overturned. Nimby’s not the half of it.
What Simon and Zorzi do is contrast the tense, confrontational machinations of city hall – all men in suits in panelled rooms – with the lives of the people who will actually be affected by their decisions. So we meet a middle-aged carer about to lose her job because of her own illness; a girl whose boyfriend wants to escape his low-level drug-dealer status; and a working single mother struggling to look after her family. It’s not the most subtly nuanced way to tell a story, but it does the job neatly. No matter what decisions the politicians make, it’s the ordinary people in the street who will always be on the sharp end.
Against a backdrop of brown 1980s interiors (all that smoking indoors…) and a soundtrack powered by Bruce Springsteen, a fine, if not overpoweringly starry cast, power the story along. Leading the pack is Inside Llewyn Davies’s Oscar Isaac as Wasicsko, an ambitious young politician who’s simply out of his depth as political and racial tempers rise. “This is going to eat him up,” says one lawyer of Wasicsko, and a couple of episodes in, Isaac is already starting to look haunted. Alfred Molina is horribly oleaginous as a rabble-rousing opponent, and there’s a rare appearance from Winona Ryder as a colleague struggling when she’s cut adrift from the cut and thrust: “Give me your stress,” she begs.
For a drama that’s largely set in meeting rooms or drab urban wastelands, Show Me a Hero is compelling stuff. You’ll never have imagined that roll calls and abstentions and arguments in public gatherings could be so tense. But this is real life: no gloss is required. It’s another winner from the unbeatable Mr Simon.
Show Me a Hero begins on Monday 17th August on Sky Atlantic at 9.00pm