November 2017

by Harry Windsor

‘The Deuce’ (HBO / Foxtel)
David Simon’s new series shines amid the sleaze of the New York porn industry

David Simon is still scoping out the corner, only this time the people standing on it night after night are peddling their own flesh instead of drugs. Set in Times Square in 1971, The Deuce (as 42nd St was known) reunites Simon with two of the writers he worked with on The Wire, crime novelists George Pelecanos and Richard Price, and the show’s crosshatched density – its ensemble of colourful characters, some of whom enter one another’s orbit only glancingly or not at all – feels familiar. So does the amount of time the writers are content to have us wait, luxuriating in texture and salty patois, before strands of what could be described as plot begin to emerge and then overlap.

The first of the show’s eight episodes is directed by Michelle MacLaren and conspicuously omits a hook: what Pelecanos has called the “big ‘oh shit’ moment” with which the traditional pilot climaxes. Instead we’re introduced to Vincent Martino (James Franco), a bar manager, and Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mother turning tricks. Eileen’s colleagues include a young black girl from Charlotte, a young white one fresh off a Greyhound from Minnesota, and a dazed blonde with daddy issues who’s in love with her pimp, CC (played by the electric Englishman Gary Carr). He’s joined by Wire alumni Gbenga Akinnagbe and Clifford Smith (aka “Method Man”), each a flamboyantly dressed “Daddy” with a stable of hookers. The girls are kept under control by a combination of flattery and threats, doled out in not-quite-equal measure. They convene at a cafe during the day, and at Vincent’s bar after work.

The intersection of these characters with the police, the press and the nascent porn industry – and the way in which the latter was spirited into being by the relaxation of the city’s obscenity laws – provides the grist for the first season. The tentacle-like presence of the Mob looms over it, too. Vincent makes payments to a couple of made men to pay off debts accrued by his brother, Frankie, a hopeless gambler, and they’re so impressed by Vincent’s reliability that they give him the keys to his own joint. Franco also plays the twin, with slicked-back hair and cockiness dialled up to 11, in a performance that never quite transcends the gimmick.

The Deuce recalls the “Hamsterdam” storyline in The Wire with the introduction of a no-go zone honoured by the cops, but it also distinguishes itself from that series in a way that reflects how TV has changed. It’s an ensemble show fronted by two movie stars, and it has an attitude to coverage – shot selection and variation – that’s vastly more ambitious. The directors (including Franco himself) and designers have created a world that looks as rich as it sounds. The frontier permissiveness of pre-Giuliani New York once offered visitors the chance to remake themselves. For Simon, it still does.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

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