I first went to New York City when I was in college. Growing up in the south, I had always imagined experiencing the fabled town, but my mother warned me: stay away from Times Square. Though I was going in 2004, she had last been in the 1970s. For me, Times Square was a Disney-fied kind of New York amusement park of advertising and retail, but in the 70s, it was a hub for crime, prostitution, and seedy activities. That is the setting where The Deuce picks up, in 1971 on 42nd Street in Manhattan, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, and at the beginning of an attempt to clean up the streets while — to use a phrase all of us in media know too well — pivoting to video.
Personally, I had no interest in The Deuce based on any trailer or synopsis I had seen. I’m not hugely interested in that era, in the rise of pornography, or in (yet another) a gritty tale of the New York City streets. Plus, I had not that long ago been burned by Vinyl, and wasn’t eager to go through all of that again. And yet, The Deuce comes from The Wire’s David Simon and frequent collaborator George Pelecanos (the latter of whom is known for gritty crime fiction). I’ve watched everything David Simon has ever made and enjoyed it (yes, even Treme, the bleak Show Me a Hero, and the underrated Generation Kill). So I had to give it a fair shake — helpfully, HBO also provided the entire eight-episode first season to review.
I give this disclaimer to say that if you are in the same position as I was when it comes to The Deuce, take heart: like The Wire, it’s a show that is almost impossible to market well. Plot is not a foremost concern nor something that’s noticeable; the series hinges on character drama, and that’s hard to condense into a two minute trailer. And while The Deuce may start off a little slow for some, like the majority of Simon’s other projects, the payoff once you get deeply entrenched with these characters is immense.
Like The Wire (and I don’t want to draw too many comparisons, but I think some are helpful), the show starts in the streets and focuses on the players there, and their interactions with the police. As the episodes play out, we start to see a wide net that includes the Mob, local government, unions, reporters, and more. It all connects, but those connections are secondary to getting to know the major players like “Candy” (the exceptional Maggie Gyllenhaal), a rare sex worker without a pimp, who aspires to something more; Vincent Martino (a compelling James Franco, who also plays Vinnie’s scummy brother Frankie), a hardworking bar manager who becomes embroiled with the Mob; as well as a host of intimidating pimps (Gbenga Akinnagbe, Gary Carr), and their stable of impressionable women (Dominique Fishback, Emily Meade, and many more). Outsiders who start to move into the circle include two curious women, a college student (Margarita Levieva) and a reporter (Natalie Paul) who are both looking to understand the lives these prostitutes lead.
Simmering in the background of all of this is a new consideration: movie making. Though pornography had been on film since the dawn of film itself, The Deuce focuses on how the women react to the changing times — and potential to make a lot more money — of getting off the streets and into the studios. All of this builds up slowly, and not without fits and starts, but it’s all extremely compelling. What Simon does better than almost any other show creator and writer is that he finds the humanity in every type of character. Some that you like will frustrate and disappoint you, and some that you dislike will show you a surprisingly tender side or unexpectedly heroic moment. Above all, while what The Deuce deals with is dark (drugs, pimping, violence), there is a lilt to the dialogue and a certain kind of matter-of-fact humor that permeates, and never allows its gritty tale to get too suffocatingly bleak.
It’s worth noting, too, that the show does contain an extraordinary amount of sex and nudity (on all sides — The Deuce may actually have more penises in it than any prior HBO series). It’s to be expected given the subject matter, but it’s not exactly the kind of show you want to watch in a group or on a laptop in a public space. While the sex work is not meant to be titillating, there’s still plenty of other sexual content that is. Ultimately, while the show strives to be frank in its use of nudity and sexuality (including the burgeoning gay scene happening in New York at that time), it’s still a sometimes overwhelming part of the storytelling.
What really makes The Deuce so good, though, are its conversations, the cadence and truth of its dialogue, and its both bold and vulnerable performances. It captures its setting in an extraordinary way, from the cigarettes and diners and honking horns on the street to the early morning papers rustling through the gutters. Also important for a period piece: nothing feels forced, or educational, or winking in a “look what people thought in the past!” way. It’s just a new background for an age-old tale of people trying to make it, no matter where they are in the social pecking order. Some people are trying to change the game, and some people are working as hard as they can to make sure that it never changes. The Deuce finds a way to make us care deeply about both.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Lemme bum a cigarette will ya?
The Deuce premieres Sunday, September 10th on HBO; the first episode is now available for a preview via HBO Go, Now, and On Demand.