"I didn't stumble out of journalism 20 years ago to be in the entertainment industry, but I am," says David Simon.
He is sitting on a stool in the basement bar of the Ukrainian Youth Centre in Yonkers (New York). It's the kind of place where small-time politicos and the reporters who cover them do business: two-tone tile floor, drop ceiling, dim lighting, blond-wood bar slightly sticky to the touch.
Upstairs, a film crew is setting up to shoot a scene for Simon's new miniseries, Show Me a Hero, a six-part drama about the struggle over public housing and desegregation in Yonkers in the 1980s and 1990s.
Show Me a Hero, which debuts on SoHo this week, interweaves two main narrative threads. In one, the political process chews up and spits out the young mayor, Nick Wasicsko.
In the other, black and Hispanic residents of public housing and white homeowners live the consequences of decisions made by elected officials and government bureaucrats.
Show Me a Hero tells a story that may resonate beyond its immediate subject, but it really is about 200 units of scattered-site low-income housing in Yonkers. There are no chases, no gunfights, no Game of Thrones-style "sexposition" and no characters like Omar Little, a refugee from the Western genre who robbed drug dealers and lived by a lone-wolf code that made him everybody's favourite on The Wire - while he lasted, anyway.
Simon said he would have dispensed entirely with actors if he had access to found footage of everything that happens in Show Me a Hero, which is based on the non-fiction book by former New York Times reporter Lisa Belkin.
Political dysfunction is the main theme. "The battle in Yonkers was to see if anybody could govern," says Simon, and one of its casualties was Wasicsko, who committed suicide in 1993.
Simon thinks of Show Me a Hero as the latest instalment in the larger project he has pursued over the course of his career, in partnership with Ed Burns, Bill Zorzi, Eric Overmyer and other collaborators.
He says: "My idea is if you went back when I'm done and looked at all these pieces [Homicide: Life on the Street, The Corner, The Wire, Generation Kill and Treme], you'd have a really good sense of what this society was about, what the stakes were and what the processes were that worked and didn't. This is how we waged war. This is why our cities were violent. This is what we were capable of at the turn of the century - which is why Treme is a really important piece of this. Katrina showed us what we were and weren't capable of."
For two decades, Simon has been writing stories for TV about people who don't transcend the economic, social and political systems and institutions that shape their lives.
That makes him a rarity in Hollywood. What you typically see on the screen are heroes rising above circumstances through force of will, moral virtue, superpowers or some other kind of idealised potency. But Simon's stories make such dramas, even at their most high-minded, look like wishful melodrama or, as he puts it, "anti-drama".
Belkin took her book's title from F Scott Fitzgerald's line, "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy." It could serve as Simon's dramatic credo.
"It's much harder to tell these kinds of stories in a way a lot of people will want to watch. It would be easier to tell a clearer story that's more provocative and more gratifying, even more entertaining."
One foil he sometimes cites for Show Me a Hero is The West Wing, an "aspirational" show populated by impossibly clever White House operatives whose intrigues bore little resemblance to how political sausage was made.
Frequently repeating "no dragons, no zombies", Simon also contrasts Show Me a Hero with such formulaic genre exercises as HBO's Game of Thrones, which renders the contest for power as swords-and-sorcery pulp, and AMC's The Walking Dead, a different sort of political fantasy in which government has been abolished and a citizen's relationship to others consists mostly of aiming for the head.
"At a certain point I'm trapped by my past and my training, which is not in fiction or TV," says Simon, 55, who spent 12 years at the Baltimore Sun (he lives in Baltimore and is married to crime novelist Laura Lippman).
"I know that you have to want to follow the characters, but at the end of the day, if all we've arrived at is to entertain you, then f*** us."
That's not an attitude calculated to endear a writer to most TV executives. Simon has a long-standing relationship with HBO, which is known for taking chances in the name of quality, but only last year he was threatening to stop writing for TV because the network had pulled the plug on Treme after ordering an abbreviated fourth season.
He expresses continuing astonishment that HBO has seen fit to give him six hours of air time to tell a story about housing policy, and assembled the Hollywood talent to help him tell it: the director Paul Haggis, an Oscar winner; the rising star Oscar Isaac; seasoned pros such as Catherine Keener, Winona Ryder and Alfred Molina.
Zorzi, Simon's co-writer on Show Me a Hero, who also worked on The Wire and at the Sun, shares his surprise.
"I don't want to perform unnatural acts on HBO," says Zorzi, "but letting us make this speaks to what they're about. My wife, Patty, was like, 'Come on, they're actually going to let you do this?'."
When Simon goes back upstairs at the Ukrainian Youth Centre, Haggis is shooting an election-night scene in which Angelo Martinelli, the six-term mayor, congratulates the 28- year-old Wasicsko on having defeated him. Wasicsko has presented himself to voters as more energetically opposed than the incumbent to a court-mandated plan to build scattered-site public housing in all-white areas of Yonkers, a position he will soon find himself unable to sustain.
The city has exhausted plausible legal options and will have to comply, inspiring enraged constituents to turn on their new mayor. Repeated sequences of angry crowds shouting down gavel-pounding officials bring the thread of scenes from the lives of ordinary citizens together with the backroom, courtroom and campaign scenes that tell the story of Wasicsko's rise and fall.
Jim Belushi, playing Martinelli, moves through knots of reporters and jubilant campaign workers to reach Wasicsko, played by Isaac, who has earned strong notices for his work in Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year and will star in upcoming Star Wars and X-Men movies.
Martinelli says to his successor, "The voters have lifted a tremendous burden off my shoulders and placed it on yours."
Haggis, who wrote and directed Crash (2004), had choreographed extras to mill around and partially block the camera, boxing in the two politicians and giving the scene a convincingly imperfect look.
Period-evoking party music, Dire Straits' Walk of Life, will be added later. Belushi delivers his line with a slightly different emphasis in each take: "The voters have ... a tremendous burden ... off my shoulders."
Simon huddles with Zorzi, considering a suggestion to substitute "put" for "placed" because it flowed a bit better. Simon, who is big and hairless and looks from some angles like Homer Simpson's much smarter brother, looms over the shorter, bearded Zorzi as they murmur, heads almost touching. They decided that, since reliable reporting indicated the real Martinelli had said "placed" they had an obligation to stick with it.
Over time, Simon's work has grown quieter and less concerned with "action" in the conventional sense as it has moved away from familiar genre formulas. He started out telling crime stories, and Generation Kill is a war story, albeit a revisionist one, but the most recent work, both fiction (Treme) and non-fiction (Show Me a Hero), is harder to categorise. In that sense, Simon is like a novelist who made his entrance on the scene writing prize-winning genre fiction but is moving closer to the realist tradition.
"There's viewers who probably say, 'He got more boring; there's less action', " says Simon. "Maybe I'm just older, or I've had more practice, but I feel like I'm getting better at what I do and I can take more risks. It's not how much plot can we give you, it's that we're chasing something a little different."
The most common complaint about Treme was that the show obsessed over getting details about New Orleans' music and food right at the expense of advancing an engaging story.
If viewers and critics have a problem with Show Me a Hero, it will probably follow similar lines: sure, that's how housing policy affected people's lives, but shouldn't somebody get naked or get killed, or both?
"There's a part of me that would say, bluntly, that we're entertaining ourselves to death," says Simon. "There are so many comic-book characters and comic-book notions of human endeavour coming at us. Is anybody attending to anything that's real?"
Simon has optioned Taylor Branch's three-volume history of the civil rights movement, intending to emphasise Martin Luther King jnr's travails in northern cities.
"They come over the bridge in Selma, and it's 'roll credits'," says Simon, referring to standard uplifting accounts of the civil rights movement, "but that's when the interesting part begins."
Simon's run on HBO has offered him a chance to make what he calls "mid-list" TV drama: absolved of the obligation to try to become a hit, allowed to be serious enough to earn intellectual prestige.
"I was always a mid-list author," he says, speaking of his non-fiction books, Homicide and The Corner. "And I lived on the metro desk as a reporter, not at the White House on page A1. If you want to be on A1, you don't hang around with Bubbles, the heroin addict who is one of the moral centres of The Wire. TV never had the mid-list until HBO and its competitors came along. I just happened to come in at a time when the TV audience fractured and the window opened."
He regularly makes dark predictions that the window might be closing again. Homicide struggled with "a 14 or 15 share" on broadcast TV in the 1990s, he notes, "but now, that would be an epic hit".
He believes a basic-cable share of 15 for The Walking Dead "might be the beginning of the end", an indicator zombies and dragons are poised to overwhelm reporting and realism.
For now, though, Show Me a Hero adds another chapter to the story of our time that Simon wants to tell.
"However long this run lasts, I can stand back at the end and say, 'These were our problems. This is how we lived'."
Who: David Simon, creator of The Wire and other weighty television dramas such as Generation Kill and Treme
What: Six part series Show Me a Hero
When: SoHo, Thursday, 8.30pm