With their new HBO drama ‘The Deuce’, creators David Simon and George Pelecanos apply the same meticulous attention to detail and local atmosphere to the 1970s porn industry that they brought to ‘The Wire’ and ‘Treme’. This may be the most promising new show of the year.
Set in 1971 and based in New York City’s Time Square district long before its gentrification and Disneyfication, this show takes a very different approach to its subject matter than Paul Thomas Anderson’s similarly-themed ‘Boogie Nights’. Times Square in the 1970s was a very dirty, gritty place and the center of an almost surreal clash of cultures – a spot where sex workers could openly trawl the streets beneath the marquees of art house movie theaters playing esteemed foreign films. (Bertolucci’s ‘The Conformist’ is prominently name-checked here.)
The pilot episode introduces us to a host of characters and storylines. The most prominent are Vinnie Martino (James Franco) and Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Vinnie’s a bartender always hustling to make ends meet, both to support his family and to pay off debts accrued by his deadbeat twin brother, Frankie (also Franco). Candy, meanwhile, is a veteran street-walker who refuses to work for a pimp. This allows her to keep all her earnings for herself, but makes her job a lot more dangerous.
Circling around these two are a number of interesting supporting players, including super fly pimp C.C. (Gary Carr), C.C.’s fresh-off-the-bus new recruit Lori (Emily Meade) who’s a lot less naïve than she appears at first, and NYU English Lit major Abby (Margarita Levieva) who gets busted trying to score uppers before an exam. Most of these characters initially either don’t know each other at all or are only peripherally connected, but slowly come into each other’s orbits. Vinnie moves out of his house after catching his floozy wife (Zoe Kazan) picking up guys at a pool hall, and takes up residence at the scuzzy hotel where both Candy and C.C. do most of their business. Abby winds up at Vinnie’s bar when the sleazebag cop who arrested her offers to cut her loose if she’ll go on a date with him.
Even with an 80-minute length, the first episode has very little direct plotting and spends most of that time immersing us into its world. Although the network’s promos have made the series’ main subject clear, pornography isn’t mentioned at all in the premiere. That’s not to say that nothing happens. This is the type of show that thrives on simply letting its characters interact with their environment. It slowly explores an interconnected web of subcultures that most viewers probably never gave much thought to before, and it’s fascinating.
The show’s production values of recreating the era are top-notch and fully believable. The performances are also fantastic across the board. I perhaps wish that Franco’s two characters were distinguished from each other a little more (Vinnie gets a bruise on his forehead early in the episode, which helps tell them apart for now), but the main scene where the brothers interact and bust each other’s balls is very well done and a lot of fun.
Looking over the schedule of other new shows upcoming this fall, I seriously doubt I’ll see anything else as good as this. It’s terrific… assuming you’re not afraid of seeing dongs exposed on camera, because it has several.