Candy, a Times Square sex worker played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, has become fascinated by the idea of dirty movies. Increasingly popular in Europe, they’re technically illegal in her city — but she doesn’t think that will always be the case.
America, she says, has never left money on the table. It’s not a place where if a buck can be made, somebody won’t vacuum it right up. Sex, ultimately, is just another commodity, and Candy, who’s worked without a pimp for her entire career, knows this better than anybody. Capitalism just means finding your niche — in this case, a porn industry about to blossom thanks to an unlikely confluence of events — and then ruthlessly exploiting it.
That’s the territory inhabited by The Deuce, HBO’s new drama from The Wire’s David Simon and George Pelecanos. You might watch for the sex stuff, for the naked bodies and surprisingly intricate depiction of how the early ’70s porn industry actually operated, but Simon and Pelecanos have much bigger things on their mind, namely what unchecked capitalism looks like in this very specific microcosm. Who’s hurt? Who benefits? And how can the state keep the playing field level (if at all)?
The Deuce has several elements that might strike some viewers as warning signs. It is, after all, a series about sex work in early ’70s New York that stars two James Francos (yes, two of them). Even with the presence of Simon and Pelecanos, there’s plenty there that might frighten you away.
But The Deuce is fantastic, the best show of the fall — and to convince you to watch it, let’s address those three big “warning signs” one by one.
1) This is a show about the porn industry and sex workers
HBO has a long history of using sex to sell its shows — or, to evoke Ian McShane’s famous dismissal of Game of Thrones, the network has a long history of using “tits and dragons” to draw in viewers. In their best incarnations, the network’s shows use these more adult elements to dig into complex, meaty themes. In their worst incarnations, they’re just there to be tawdry or, worse, exploitative.
But The Deuce is literally a show about exploitation and the many forms it takes — be it exploitation for money or exploitation for sex or exploitation for power or all three at the same time. Where The Deuce’s nudity might feel titillating on other shows, it instead feels boring and work-a-day much of the time, because having sex is, for a lot of these people, their job. (It’s also worth pointing out that this show has by far the most male nudity of any HBO drama in recent memory.)
This is not to say that the show doesn’t feature some terrific, passionate sex scenes — but they almost always tend to center on characters in loving, consensual relationships, and they’re also interested in how you make sex special for someone you love when your day job is literally having sex in any number of capacities. The show features both heterosexual and same-sex couples, and the answer to the above dilemma is different for every single one of them.
How does a show about the allure of tawdriness keep from being tawdry itself? It’s helped substantially by the show’s writers, led by Simon and Pelecanos but also featuring novelists like Richard Price and Lisa Lutz among their number, who craft a staggering number of richly realized characters, up and down the power structure of their New York City neighborhood. (“The Deuce” referred to a particular stretch of 42nd Street in Manhattan.) From sex workers to local power brokers, The Deuce is interested in these people as people, not just as cogs in the greater machine.
But it is interested in how that machine grinds down their humanity until they can barely take it anymore. And that’s where the series’ directors come in. In particular, directing producer Michelle MacLaren (famed for her work on Breaking Bad) always highlights the characters not as body parts but as the people who contain those parts.
In a lovely shot in the finale (I’ve seen all eight episodes of season one), for instance, two women on a porn set stop to contemplate themselves in a mirror after one spreads petroleum jelly all over the other’s breasts (to make them look better on camera). Where other (probably male) directors might focus on the breasts, MacLaren focuses on the long gaze into the mirror. What are these women thinking? What might we be thinking?
The question isn’t answered — but that it’s asked at all suggests where The Deuce’s priorities lie.
2) It’s set in 1970s New York
Given HBO’s struggles with the similarly situated Vinyl — a rock ’n’ roll drama canceled after one season — it’s natural to worry The Deuce might be all surface, with little depth.
And to be sure, The Deuce does a lot of things that I normally find concerning on a TV show. It spends roughly two-thirds of its season setting up its ultimate story, and that ultimate story amounts to “Here are the structural and societal pressures that led to the rise of the porn industry in New York,” which isn’t exactly a barnburner.
Episodes often don’t have an obvious hook, and the pace is very, very slow. What’s more, the construction of 1970s New York is endlessly detailed, to the point where it feels like if you touched your TV screen, your hand might come back covered in soot and grime.
But where so many TV shows get lost in that level of hyper-detail, Simon and Pelecanos have always relished it. The Wire, after all, is pretty much the original “It’s TV, but it’s like a novel!” show, and it’s still the best in that particular Venn diagram intersection. The two writers know how to bring just enough TV to a novelistic setup to keep you coming back week after week.
In fact, I might go so far as to say that The Deuce is Simon’s most accessible show ever, with far more inviting entry points than the much more daunting The Wire and the much more obtuse Treme (a show I love but one that you have to be incredibly committed to to enjoy).
By the end of the pilot (which is available on HBO’s streaming platforms), he and Pelecanos haven’t just sketched in a bunch of characters, but an entire neighborhood. Famously, both The Wire and Treme were about American cities, observed from an almost omniscient perspective.
But The Deuce is intentionally smaller-scale, focused on a neighborhood and the industry that came to define it for a brief period of time. That makes it, somewhat unexpectedly, a small-town show, where the characters keep bumping into each other and where the central bar setting becomes a kind of hang-out spot for many of them. It’s somehow easier to get your head around immediately, even as its interest in societal flaws remain very much in Simon’s wheelhouse.
3) But, okay, seriously, it has two James Francos
If you’re the sort of person who keeps up with celebrity news and gossip, and even if you’re not, Franco’s presence could be the ultimate warning sign. Indeed, when I heard the series would star Franco in a dual role, I briefly thought Simon was making a weird bid at a big, commercial hit.
But because of his oddball persona and frequent stunts, it’s easy to forget that Franco is a serious, charismatic actor when he wants to be. The first season of The Deuce offers, in essence, one Franco who reminds us that he’s an Oscar-nominated actor, and another who evokes his more entertaining celebrity persona.
As Vincent Martino, Franco finds considerable heft in a role as a working stiff confused by the way the world turns around him. And as Vincent’s brother, Frank, Franco gets to play a guy who seems to show up once per episode to break something. It’s like the show is simultaneously reminding us why Franco became a star and providing a meta-textual critique of the difference between his celebrity and his genuine abilities.
But what’s also surprising is how much both Francos simply blend into the world of the show. Vincent is the closest thing the show has to a “protagonist,” because his bar becomes the hub for many of the series’ storylines (and you can see where it will only become more important as the series goes along). But this is never the story of one man trying to reinvent how America pays for sex, but rather the story of many people trying to reinvent just that.
As such, the show is filled to the brim with wonderful performances. Gyllenhaal makes ample use of the way she always seems to be turning over many different problems in her head at the same time to play a woman who wants something more than her current station — and also has an innate understanding of filmmaking. As a pimp named Larry Brown, Gbenga Akinnagbe offers the steely but subtle edge that have marked so many of Simon’s characters who live just across the line of what’s legal. And Dominique Fishback’s work as sex worker Darlene provides something bittersweet and melancholy in every scene she’s in.
But, really, I could single out any of two dozen performances in this show. (I should be fired for not mentioning David Krumholtz’s work as a sad, overweight porn director who seems like he’s constantly being crushed under a giant boot.) Or I could single out the way the camera swoops among the streets of the city and say the setting is the “real protagonist” — which is a terrible cliché, but true in this case.
Or I could pull in how cleverly the series turns this one neighborhood into every neighborhood, into an America that’s trapped by its own desires and its inability to fix so many broken systems that intersect, over and over again, in ways that destroy and too rarely rebuild.
But, really, I should just tell you to watch it. It’s impeccably acted, written, and directed, and no matter how ridiculous “a series about the 1970s porn industry with two James Francos” might sound to you, this is somehow not just the best possible execution of that idea, but the most thoughtful one, too. It’s the best show of the fall, by a wide, wide margin.
The Deuce debuts Sunday at 9 pm Eastern time on HBO, though you can watch the pilot on HBO Go or HBO Now right now.