The look of “The Deuce” is thoroughly transporting, and that’s just the start.
The new HBO sex-industry drama from novelist George Pelecanos and David Simon, the creator of “The Wire” and “Treme,” quickly drops us into the grime and urban decay of 42nd Street in 1971 — the dive bars, the peep shows, the sex hotels, the shaky phone booths where drunks pee. The show is an immersive visual experience, a trip into a mostly nighttime world lit by broad X-rated movie marquees, blinking neon martini glasses, and the headlights of Cadillac pimpmobiles.
I could have watched “The Deuce” with the sound off, and still marveled not only at its production design and period perfection, but at the imaginative camerawork framing it all, the confident early-Scorsese-like set pieces that unfold in smoky diners and in stale bedrooms. And then there are the countless scenes that seamlessly deliver two James Francos in the same room — sometimes three, if there’s a mirror in the shot — as he plays twins Vincent and Frankie Martino. The show’s title refers to Forty-deuce, a nickname for 42nd Street, but it also alludes to Franco’s brothers, a pair of quite different men who look exactly the same.
Of course I did listen to every word in “The Deuce,” which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. (the 85-minute episode is already available on demand). And I was not disappointed.
As with “The Wire” and “Treme,” we meet a large, multicultural ensemble of characters in “The Deuce,” most of them written with remarkable specificity and distinguished by shrewd acting choices. And as with “The Wire” and “Treme,” their stories piece together slowly but surely into a single broad canvas of Americans on the fringes of our economic system. In “The Deuce,” the main characters are the hookers, the pimps, the bar owners, and the waitresses, a population of men and women barely getting by on the streets. One of the trademark beauties of any Simon show is the way it takes seriously and fleshes out people on the margins.
Vincent is the central character, a low-key, hard-working husband and father of two with a cigarette forever dangling from his lips. He’s always tired from his jobs, and he and his wife, Andrea (the remarkable Zoe Kazan), have drifted apart. Vincent is an ambitious man who has a talent for bar management, and many of the characters on “The Deuce” ultimately revolve around his Times Square joint. We see less of brother Frankie, a self-centered gambler always on the run from debt he owes to men with guns. Franco delineates the brothers nicely, without pushing too hard; Vincent is honorable, Frankie is irresponsible and impulsive, but neither is an extreme. When Vincent takes on Frankie’s latest debts, his generosity is one of the quiet graces to be found on the show, one of the gems buried in this avalanche of inner city indifference and avarice.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is streetwalker Eileen “Candy” Merrell, a single mother whose preteen son is being raised by her disapproving mother. Candy, who stuffs her brown hair into a blond curly wig when she’s working, a symbol of her boundaries, doesn’t have a pimp. “I take care of my own self,” she says, and it becomes increasingly clear that she, like Vincent, has managed to keep a dream or two alive. In her quest to control her life, she becomes fascinated by the idea of making porn and aspires to get behind the camera. A porn actress gets paid only once, she realizes, no matter how many times her movie is viewed.
The other hookers in “The Deuce” are definitely not independent, and Simon and Pelecanos dig deep into their relationships with their pimps. We see the pimps abuse the women physically and psychologically, bullying them to draw more clients and make more money, and then turn around and coddle them in a sick codependency. Dominique Fishback is moving as Darlene, the naive hooker whose moody pimp, C.C. (Gary Carr), cuts her no slack. One of her regular customers pays her to watch classic movies such as “Mildred Pierce” with him, and her newfound awareness of the world is nothing but a threat to C.C. At one point, C.C. allows her to visit her family — but only so she can recruit others for a career in “modeling.” Another of C.C.’s workers, newcomer Lori (Emily Meade), also suffers in the clutches of C.C.’s sweet promises and cold greed. None of the women feels free to talk to the journalist lurking in the neighborhood, hoping to write a story about sex work.
You won’t be surprised to learn that the show is sexually explicit. It portrays the origins of the porn industry that is now, 46 years later, massive; and it explores the mind-sets of the women and the men in the world of prostitution. There is an enormous amount of female nudity, and male nudity, too, as well as some aggression and violence toward women. But I don’t have the sense that “The Deuce” is trying to titillate, something HBO shows are often accused of; the vibe, for me, is about showing this bleak world and these difficult lives as frankly as possible. It is about taking a non-exploitive approach to an industry built on exploitation. As visually spellbinding as this particular vision of 1971 is, there is nothing nostalgic about it.
Starring: James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Zoe Kazan, Emily Meade, Gary Carr, Chris Bauer,
On: HBO, Sunday at 9 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.