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HBO’s ‘The Deuce’ presents a sex-filled, corrupt NYC in the 1970s

By Noah Harper

Section: Arts

September 29, 2017

HBO’s new show “The Deuce” depicts a New York City on the verge of collapse. The show is all about exploitation. Systemic, sexual, economic—you name it. From “The Wire” creator David Simon and co-writer George Pelecanos comes a portrait of midtown New York in the seventies, a bygone time when urban and criminal were almost synonymous. The show offers a sobering (though, at times, fun) look at a world in which people are both victims and oppressors. With drugs and prostitution rampant, Times Square is a seedy mess—a far cry from the tourist mecca it is today.

“The Wire,” too, portrayed a city on the brink of collapse. That show was set in Baltimore, Maryland, and we followed characters on every level of the city’s society, from the disenfranchised youth to the ascendant mayor. David Simon’s old masterpiece, which turned ten last year, gave us a grisly, pitch-black depiction of the sociopolitical state of the American city.

But “The Deuce” isn’t “The Wire,” though they might share similar themes, such as urban decay and systemic corruption. The new show has an additional visual flare (from a definite increase in budget), some extra cinematographic panache. Where one was often gritty and gray, Simon and Pelecanos’ new series is vibrant and colorful.

All this isn’t to say that the same seediness and corruption aren’t there, just that there’s an additional flare to it all. It’s evident that special consideration was taken to ensure the pre-Giuliani Times Square looks authentic and visually-interesting—it feels nostalgic at first, though it soon becomes obvious that the show is not at all sentimental for this bygone era. Soon enough, you realize that you don’t really want to go back and live around 1970s 42nd street, “The Deuce,” as it was called colloquially.

We get introduced to (one of) the characters played by James Franco, reliable workhorse Vincent Martino, who tends a bar in Brooklyn and Manhattan in order to support his family. Vincent is quickly accosted by mobsters, mistaking him for his twin brother, Frankie, who’s run up quite the gambling debt. Vincent is put on the hook to pay it off, and becomes financially motivated to seek out new ways of making an income.

“The Deuce” is an ensemble piece. Though Vincent is the main character, the episodes don’t exactly center around him. Like “The Wire,” we follow other characters, though they all frequent the same vicinity. There are the pimps with names like CC and Reggie Love (the Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man also makes an appearance); the prostitutes like Candy, Ruby and Darlene, and the policemen, too. Soon enough, the Mob enters into things, and our characters become entangled in various schemes, usually involving sex at one point or other.

After the pilot (which spans an admittedly onerous hour and 25 minutes), our characters’ storylines soon begin to intersect. After the first episode, I was skeptical. The running theme about the transactional nature of sexual relationships was not established with subtlety, and if I didn’t trust Simon and Pelecanos because of their “Wire” bonafides, I wouldn’t still be watching.

What makes “The Deuce” compelling is that it sets up these characters and what they supposedly represent, (i.e. cops: law and order), and then turns those ideas on their heads. There’s a great moment in the second episode, in which the officers at a precinct, after having rounded up and arrested a group of hookers fresh off the streets, buy them all Chinese food and they all eat outside in the courtyard. “Y’all better get inside, Lieu’s about five minutes out,” one of them suddenly calls. The group quickly files back into the station, the women careful to pick up and throw away the trash from their takeout.

James Franco—I never thought I’d be saying this—is a standout as twin brothers Vincent and Frankie. They’re distinct, and he manages to create a rapport between the two that’s both hilarious and engaging. Thus far, the brothers, despite having their differences, have a good relationship and I’m looking forward to seeing it grow as the show progresses.

Maggie Gyllenhaal shines as Candy, a prostitute who refuses to let a pimp control her. She works the streets in midtown Manhattan, returning occasionally to Queens to give money to her mother and see her son. Candy is notable for her independence and resoluteness to support herself. When asked, “Who’s your man?” Candy replies, “No man, just me…You gotta work a little harder, you gotta be a little more careful…but it works for me.”

In a show obsessed with exploitation and the transactional nature of sex, it’s only fitting that pornography plays such a prominent part. In one scene in the second episode, the prostitute Darlene finds out that a pornographic film of her is being distributed and sold without her knowledge. “I’m gonna look into it,” her pimp says, “Make sure we ain’t being took advantage of.” It’s obvious that he’s the one selling the films, but he’s not willing to admit it to her.

This scene is indicative of what “The Deuce” is all about: the myriad ways that people can take advantage and are taken advantage of. It also asks questions about how money affects these kinds of exploitative relationships, and if it’s anything like “The Wire,” the answers will not be optimistic. However, the world is vividly established and the characters are compelling so that I look forward to coming back to this world on a weekly basis, to see what kind of tantalizing, deceptively wicked things “The Deuce” has in store.

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