Review: HBO's 'The Deuce' brilliantly captures sex and sleaze of 1970s New York City
James Franco playing twin brothers in a '70s porn drama will hook many viewers. But Maggie Gyllenhaal as a saavy sex worker will keep them coming back to 42nd street for more.
The Deuce, created by David Simon, is similar to his other famous HBO endeavors (The Wire, Treme) in that it focuses on how institutions and culture wear down people and communities. With The Wire it was crime and the drug trade in Baltimore. With Treme it was a community rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. And with The Deuce, Simon explores the booming sex trade in the grimy, gritty parts of New York City's Times Square, particularly along 42nd street. The 8-episode series is less about gratuitous sex scenes than it is about the power and politics behind the sale of flesh.
Franco plays both Vincent and Frankie Martino. Vincent is a trustworthy, hardworking barman who puts everything he has into providing for his family. Frankie is a hot-headed gambler with a hefty debt and a laissez faire attitude. Their skills catch the eye of mob capo Rudy Pipilo (Michael Rispoli), who loops them into his seedy plan for sex shops and massage parlors.
While Franco seamlessly portrays two wildly different brothers, Gyllenhaal shines as Eileen, who goes by Candy on the streets. She turns tricks as an independent sex worker by night to provide for a son who lives with his grandmother. Eileen's mounting desperation to create a better life guides her to the pre-Deep Throat era of adult cinema with the hope it'll give her more control.
Then there are the pimps who control most of 42nd street, played by Gbenga Akinnagbe, Cliff "Method Man" Smith and Gary Carr. They are constantly bewildered by Eileen's decision to work pimp-free and wary of any change coming to their business.
Newcomer Lori (Emily Meade) and curious Darlene (Dominique Fishback) are both intrigued by Eileen's work ethic and refusal to be controlled by a pimp. Lori is a 20-year-old fresh off the bus from the Midwest who falls in with the charming C.C. (Carr) while Darlene barely manages her volatile pimp Larry Brown (Akinnagbe).
At a time when the New York Police Department was under scrutiny for corruption, the officers in The Deuce jump between complicity and neglect. They become more of a focus in the story when a reporter (Natalie Paul) strikes an interest in the city's call girls.
Where the period piece really stands out is with its avoidance of nostalgic glamour. Sure, there are plenty of now-vintage crochet crop tops, high-waisted bell bottoms and wide lapels, but The Deuce never ceases showing that this way of life wasn't exactly something to strive for.
If the series has any flaws, it's the number of episodes. Prostitution, the burgeoning porn industry, classism and police corruption are all grand storylines that need room to breathe. In just eight episodes, some of them don't get enough time to be fleshed out. I have little doubt HBO will renew this seedy period drama for a second season.
The Deuce is an instantly immersive new series. It takes viewers back in time not to a lavish past but to a certain kind of hell that molded its inhabitants into creating a billion dollar American industry that's still booming today.
Contact Chelsea Tatham at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @chelseatatham.