TV auteur David Simon (The Wire, Generation Kill) has returned to HBO with longtime collaborator George Pelecanos for another look at life on the streets, this time with The Deuce, focused on the people who swarmed about the epicenter of American Sleaze — 42nd Street between 7th and 8th avenues in Manhattan in the 1970s — chasing money, sex, and/or drugs. The first episode arrived last week, and Simon’s ear for dialogue is in fine form as he sets the stage for what promises to be the next great television event.
As is his custom, Simon’s latest world has a host of characters who are all surely doomed to converge at various points in Manhattan: Vincent and Frankie Martino (James Franco), twin brothers from Brooklyn, the former a husband, father of two, and bartender/small time drug dealer, the latter an inveterate gambler with huge debts and an unhealthy faith in the New York Mets; Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who also serves as a producer), an aging prostitute who’s one of the few in her trade to maintain her pimp-free life; Larry Brown (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a tall handsome pimp with a hair-trigger temper; Abby (Margarita Levieva) a smart but dangerously precocious NYU student; and Lori (Emily Meade), a young woman fresh from the Midwest who gets taken under the wing of a pimp before she gets out of the bus station. It’s hard to imagine things working out well for any of them, but you’re determined to see them through.
Franco does a nice job of differentiating the twins, though he gets a big boost from a convenient head wound. His Vincent is earnest, angry and determined, while Frankie is a devil-may-care hustler who loves nothing more than the rush of gambling. Gyllenhaal is outstanding as a world-weary hooker serving the whims of undersexed men so she can keep them at a remove, her innate decency drowned out by her fierce independence. Among the lesser known actors, Gary Carr’s portrayal of CC, a smooth-talking pimp, is exceptional; Carr wields a seductively winning smile, but the sweeter he talks to you, the more danger you’re in.
On a purely visual level, The Deuce brilliantly recreates the glory (hole) days of Times Square. The clothing, the cars, the music, the hair, marquees, storefronts, cigarettes… It all serves to simultaneously remind you of both how awesome and awful that time and place was, as the friction from so much degradation created so much brilliant culture.
But, true to form, Simon and Pelecanos are most interested in people, and The Deuce, like pretty much all of Simon’s work, is more about in why people do things, rather than what they’re doing. Simon has a gift for diagnosing the incentives that drives people from Richard Nixon (“that man want out of the war just like everybody else, but he can’t play it like that. See, he got to make those mother*ckers think he do any goddamn thing they can imagine”), right on down to Times Square hookers. After one young john finishes too quickly for his own good, he makes an impassioned plea, claiming he should get more of Candy’s time, to which she responds, “One ticket, one ride,” before delivering a brief sermon on microeconomics. It’s classic Simon, taking a moment of premature ejaculation in a run-down by-the-hour hotel and turning it into a trenchant lesson about how the world really works.
The Deuce suffers, like almost every pilot ever made, from a surfeit of exposition, but you have to forgive them if they need a little time for world building and laying the foundation for two dozen life stories. If God can have six days to build and populate Earth, surely you can’t begrudge Simon & Co. two episodes. What Simon does better than perhaps anybody is to humanize the population of a marginalized industry – drugs, sex… — with real people, and tell their stories in such a way that makes it clear that their problems are your problems. Mercifully, Simon can take such an ugly lesson and make it into riveting television.
New episodes of The Deuce air at 9pm ET Sundays on HBO; all new episodes will be available on-demand.