The Deuce is the latest series from David Simon (The Wire, Generation Kill, Show Me a Hero), co-creator and executive producer here alongside regular collaborator George P. Pelecanos. The show captures the legalisation and subsequent explosion of the porn industry in New York in the 1970s; the title refers to the nickname given to Manhattan’s 42nd Street, situated between Broadway and Eighth Avenue.
This first episode of HBO‘s new series offers plenty to get excited about, but it’s Maggie Gyllenhaal, in her role as entrepreneurial sex worker Eileen “Candy” Merrell, that steals the show. Candy, who also has a young son living in the care of her mother, strolls the littered and squalid streets of Times Square alongside her peers, but stands taller and apart, working for herself and nobody else. We learn that this type of independence is a highly important and rare characteristic to have in her particular line of work.
James Franco plays twin brothers Vincent (“Vinnie”) and Frankie Martino. Vinnie is a hard-working bartender who keeps two jobs to support his wife and kids. Things are not so rosy in his married life, as his wife Andrea (played by Zoe Kazan, The Big Sick) spends most of her nights out drinking and partying with numerous men, leaving the kids with her mother. Frankie is a fiendish gambler, and he owes the mob serious dollars. Slowly, the wheels are put in motion by the mob and Vinnie, by far the more conscientious of the two, that seem to insinuate that the debt repayment will be oiled out via the age-old classic, the “mob front”.
I’ll need to see more from Franco before I feel totally at ease with him in dual roles; I largely view him as a comic actor who lacks the bones to nail down the more serious, nuanced roles. He did a decent first-up job here, but it is early days to be sure. That said, I live in hope, as David Simon oft gets the best out of everyone he works with.
Next we have the pimps. We meet C.C. (Gary Carr, Downton Abbey), whose methodology is to pick up girls at the airport as soon as they land in New York, using his silken-tongue and shiny Cadillac as recruitment tools. This strategy reels in young Minnesotan Lori (Emily Meade, The Leftovers), and she joins his prostitution line merrily and seemingly without much thought. We soon learn that she is not naive, though, and this is not her first rodeo. Larry Brown (Gbenga Akinnagbe, The Wire) is a different cat altogether when compared to C.C.; he is far more stringent and overbearing in every way. He is particularly hard on Darlene (Dominique Fishback, Show Me a Hero), a very young and good-natured streetwalker.
One of the most notable parts of the portrayal of these streetwalkers is that, despite all the turmoil, abuse and objectification they experience on a nightly basis, they remain sweet, caring unto one another and hold onto their sunny dispositions throughout. It is at once heartbreaking and uplifting, and seems to be a crucial focal point and ingredient in this simmering recipe.
The final main story arc revolves around intelligent young college student Abigail “Abby” Parker (Margarita Levieva, The Black List). She has an affair with her teacher, gets busted for buying drugs, and winds up in the “care” of police officer Flanagan (Don Harvey, Gangster Squad). Whilst being processed, Abby chats with patrolman Chris Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr., The Wire), who runs her through the ways and laws of “the streets”. Abby seems intrigued by this. Flanagan, as part of the “deal” to let her go, takes Abby to Vinnie’s bar with a view to sleeping with her. However, Vinnie and Abby lock eyes and sparks immediately ignite, so Flanagan leaves Abby and Vinnie to chat the night away, with Vinnie smirking away like a star-struck lunatic.
Abby is later seen arriving late to an exam and opting not to sit it, ultimately walking out of the campus, implying that she is done with studying and “that life”.
This first episode, as with all pilots, plays out as the “shop window” to lure potential customers in, and boy was I reeled in, hook, line and sinker. The writing is – as expected – utterly superb. The way in which the tone and style of the show is being developed feels completely organic and real, and there’s so much intrigue and wonderment churned up by all four main story arcs that it’s genuinely difficult to decide which storyline is of most interest, or who the favourite character(s) will be. It’s exciting and refreshing in comparison to shows that adhere to a very neat structure of “here’s your good guy/gal, here are some baddies, and this is the side you should be on/opposed to”. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with that approach, per se, it can make a show more predictable and linear, and thus doesn’t allow as much room for interpretation and subjective preferences to come into play.
Simon and co. have crafted a sleazy, slimy, sickly world in which the trash on the streets is not specific to the empty bottles and food wrappers that line the sidewalks, and there is danger and smut lurking in every nook and cranny. Amidst this nocturnal and vomitus cesspool of sleaze and despair, a titan – the legalised porn industry – shall rise up. Juxtaposed with this lurid and lewd world and conduct, there remains heart and glimmers of sunlight in the form of some of the working girls. This is vital, as – gaudy and explicit as this episode and world is – having relatable characters that one can root for is fundamentally and inextricably linked to the success and impact of a TV show. The pieces have been put in place with the expertise of chess masters, and it’ll be interesting to unravel and unpeel the layers to these characters and stories as the 8-episode series progresses.
Punctuating the tale, and tying in with its success, are the many familiar faces (as an obsessive fan of The Wire, I was fist-pumping throughout the episode), all performing these larger-than-life, intriguing roles with typical assuredness. The strong performances run parallel with the excellent writing and confident tonal developments, drawing you in rapidly and easily, the allure of its stench and story origins too intoxicating and murky to ignore.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10