Times Square is no longer known as The Deuce. It was, once, a nod to 42nd Street, if not its seedy underbelly. Go there today and you’re more apt to buy Disney merchandise than a 25-cent peep show. New York City in 1971 was desperately different. The Naked City was, by that time, more a city naked, devoid of boundaries from its more feral aspects. Feral and fierce is what The Deuce promises to be over its first eight episodes.
HBO has been home to many riveting, award-winning series that are more like serialized motion pictures. There’s the expectation that each new drama will be a Sopranos, a Six Feet Under or The Wire. Vinyl, the last series on HBO set in the ’70s, failed to reach those lofty heights. With The Deuce, however, it’s hit the bull’s-eye.
The pilot depicts an authentic, rundown Manhattan and its grotesqueries, replete with pimps, prostitutes, mobsters, cops (some honest, some not) and the oozing pustule on society that is the sex trade. It begins without a hint that its main subject will be the rise of the porn industry, but first things first. Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 hit, represented the West Coast action. The Deuce peels the layers on porn’s growth in the Big Apple, with the stench of urban decay — the hard, joyless lives of its denizens, in a city soon to be bankrupt of cash, yet pulsating with electricity.
Its co-creators, David Simon and George Pelecanos (The Wire, Treme), have pedigrees that almost insure a long run. Director-Executive Producer Michelle MacLaren is completely in sync with the pair’s meticulous, painstakingly recreated New York of the early ’70s. This is particularly true in the characterization of the pimps, as played by Gbenga Akinnagbe, Rapper-actor Cliff “Method Man” Smith, and Gary Carr. You get the feel of a well-acted blaxploitation film. A gritty, 1971 replica of Times Square has been built in uptown Manhattan, in Washington Heights. Theater marquees are lit with the titles of pictures that played that year. Each scene is loaded with this kind of authenticity: the drug use, the Walt Frazier mink-and-leather pimp outfits, the micro-minis, the dandelion afros, the suit lapels wide enough to be used as table cloths and the omnipresent cigarettes. The smoke in 1971 NYC was thick.
The cast is exceptional. Maggie Gyllenhaal (also a producer) is Candy, a street pro with no pimp who sees porn as a way off the street. James Franco plays twin brothers Vincent and Frankie, who run a dicey bar in the area, also called The Deuce. The CGI is superb; Franco acts his dual roles in the same scenes. The plight of the prostitutes (Emily Meade, Dominique Fishback, Jamie Neumann) underscores the desperation that will lead to another line of work.
Steal yourself for full-frontal nudity usually found in real porn or locker rooms. It might be jarring should you not know it’s on the way. Yet the strength of the writing and acting keeps the raw nature of its subject matter from making The Deuce all titillation. There is that, of course. There’s also conflict, and a hard look at an unseemly world we have previously chosen to know little about.
Out of the Box is a semi-regular column by VCReporter staff and contributors about television and streaming content.