The Deuce is not an aesthetically pleasing show. It has that 70’s Mean Street grime and though there is a lot of sex and nudity, it lacks the artificial sheen and well-choreographed positioning that so often makes onscreen sex alluring. Dicks and boobs are reduced to irregularly shaped commodities in cold but dangerous transactions (every scene with a prostitute feels like it could end in murder). There’s nothing sexy at all about The Deuce, which tracks the rise of the porn industry from Times Square in the 1970s, birthed apparently from the convergence of prostitution and the mob (largely fictional, the series is based in part on the accounts of a New York man who worked for the Mafia in both bars and massage parlors during that decade).
The series has a similar novelistic feel to the other collaborations between David Simon and novelist George Pelecanos (The Wire, Treme), and the nearly feature-length pilot episode feels like the opening chapter. It takes its sweet time establishing context and building characters, peopling this new universe in a way that suggest that minor actions or throwaway lines will pay off in episode seven. It’s table setting, but it’s engrossing and meticulously observed.
James Franco plays twin brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino in the series. Vinnie is a hardworking bartender trying to keep his family together while his bored, mobbed-up wife steps out on him (Zoe Kazan). Vinnie is no angel, however. He’s sleeping with an adventurous college student (Margarita Levieva) who takes an interest in him (I’m already eyeballing her as the Bambi Woods of The Deuce). Frankie, often mistaken for his identical twin brother, is also left responsible for the $20,000 in gambling debts that his brother Frankie has piled up. We don’t know yet how Vinnie and Frankie will get involved with porn, but it’s not too hard to figure out how Simon and Pelacanos’ wheels are turning.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Candy, a prostitute who dares to work freelance (that is to say, without a pimp). It’s a little more dangerous, and clients are more likely to stiff her, but as we see in the case of Darlene (Dominique Fishback), it’s better than the alternative: Being abused, beaten, and cut by a pimp for showing a reluctance to turn tricks in heavy rain. The prostitutes feel like The Deuce’s equivalent of corner boys: Characters with whom we will invest emotionally only to have them ripped away from us. Candy, meanwhile, may be the burgeoning Stringer Bell, a detached businesswoman with a son she has to support who she keeps at arm’s length (the episode’s finest moment, in fact, comes when Candy delivers a stern lesson in economics to a young man who wants to take a second ride for free after he prematurely blows his load. After the lecture, Candy refuses, but she does eventually agree to allow the boy to sign over a personal check from his grandmother).
It’s a David Simon series, so obviously there is also a fair-minded cop (The Wire’s Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) in a force of corrupt ones to keep an eye on things (Ralph Macchio will play a cop in future episodes) and a newspaper reporter (Natalie Paul) to document the rise of the sex industry, because it’s never too early for Simon to plant the seeds for the fifth season.
It’s early yet, but I don’t love the James Franco characters, nor really see the necessity of having him play twin brothers (it feels like an unnecessary gimmick), but I will grant that he looks the part of a guy who is likely to become a 70s porn producer. Some characters are also more defined than others, but we’ve witnessed enough of Simon’s work to know that a minor character this season may end up the focal point in a future season. Mostly, though, I get the same sense from the pilot that I got from early episodes of The Wire: That something is cooking, and while I am generally opposed to dramas that do no hook the viewers immediately, Simon has earned our trust (it wasn’t until the fourth episode that The Wire fully grabbed me). The Deuce may be a slow burn, but there’s every reason to believe it will pay off.