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‘The Deuce’ Recap: Movin’ On Up

Porn origin-story series trades in a walk on the wild side for a James Franco-directed leisurely stroll – and it works.

You don’t take a walk on the wild side when you watch The Deuce. No, this show’s journey through the seedy side of Seventies NYC is more like a leisurely stroll. Co-written by The Wire‘s David Simon and The Night Of‘s Richard Price and directed by James Franco himself, this week’s episode – “The Principle Is All” – draws strength from that slow and steady rhythm. On paper, it’s not really doing anything different than its predecessors: Vinnie, Candy, Lori and Abby all continue their respective learning curves as they try to advance in their careers. But the deliberate pace of the writing feels less draggy, settling into a comfortable groove – even if the material is anything but.

You’ve gotta figure the unique nature of the hour’s director makes a difference. Perhaps because he’s an actor himself, Franco’s adept at coaxing out warm performances from his costars, giving the episode a looser, more humorous vibe.

Candy’s lunch with a phony “filmmaker” who charges admission for bogus porno shoots is a great case in point. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the scene as a combination of her character’s actual self, Eileen, and her sex-worker alter ego. She’s inquisitive, insightful, curious, funny, friendly, ambitious, endearing – and eventually heartbroken when it becomes clear that the “director” doesn’t have a job for her to do or a route into the film industry for her to take. As hard as it is to watch her tear up with disappointment, it remains a pleasure to see her true personality shine through until then. Based on this interaction, if Candy is ever given a chance to break free of both the street life and her disapproving mother, there’s no telling what she’d be able to accomplish.

Abby’s storyline is another highlight, almost despite itself. Plotwise, there’s not a lot going on here you couldn’t see coming: Gee, do you think the free-spirited college dropout is going to thrive at a 9-to-5 desk job as a telemarketer? Even so, it’s funny to see how willing she is to bend the rules before she finally quits, kicking up her feet on the desk and joking along with an officemate as he simulates phone sex with Julia Child. (Don’t ask.) Even when the dude steals her secret stash of cash after they sleep together, she’s got an “oh well, what’s for breakfast” attitude that’s entertaining enough to offset her relatively rote character arc thus far. When she ends up back in Vinnie’s orbit by working at his new bar, she looks – for the first time – like she belongs.

Even an ostensible heavy like Gambino capo Rudy Pippolo gets a little time in the spotlight. Actor Michael Rispoli has a low-key charm that differentiates him from his paisan-for-hire screen peers; watching him, you can understand why he was the runner-up James Gandolfini’s role in The Sopranos, and why David Chase still carved out a spot for him to play dying boss Jackie Aprile. In this episode, his gangster is more like an angel of mercy – interceding on the brothers’ behalf to keep the Irish mob off their backs, joking about a sexual liaison with a young woman that he swears was just his niece paying a visit, complementing Vincent on his skill at opening the bar. Coming from the co-creator of The Wire, this show’s willingness to turn a kingpin into a multi-dimensional character shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s a welcome development nonetheless.

But despite the abundant charms of this episode, problems remain. Why is James Franco playing twins? Like, narratively speaking? It’s easy to understand stunt casting like this when it enables writers to depict two distinct personalities using a single actor, insinuating that they’re two competing aspects of human nature. That’s how Kyle MacLachlan’s Dale Cooper/Dougie Jones/Coop-elganger Twin Peaks trinity worked; it animated Ewan McGregor’s performances in Fargo‘s last season as well.

But Vinnie and Frankie are more like two peas in a pod than two sides of the same coin. They look alike, they sound alike, they groom their facial hair alike. They even work at the same place for the same mobster boss. In theory, Vincent’s way more responsible – working man, business owner, yadda yadda. He’s also more likeable, able to get along with pimps, prostitutes, cops, mafiosi, straight waitresses, gay customers and even violent vagrants like this episode’s sinister breakout character Big Mike. But is the way he ran out on his wife and kids to make a new life for himself in Manhattan really any less reckless than his brother racking up gambling debts or busting open jukeboxes to steal their cash? On the flipside, is Frankie’s boyish charm really that different from his more straight-and-narrow brother’s people skills?

Perhaps to a realist like David Simon, you don’t need a thematic or dramatic reason to have twin leads. By that logic, some people just so happen to be twins, and there’s no more need to make that mean something in a show than there is in real life. (See also the less-than-revolutionary exploration of pimp/prostitute relations you get from Lori and C.C. or Darlene and Larry.)

But verisimilitude can only get you so far. It certainly can’t explain the shot in which Frankie rolls into Vinnie’s bar in a brown jacket and porkpie hat, holding a woman under each arm – virtually identical to Robert DeNiro’s famous “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” entrance in Scorsese’s Mean Streets. They’re trying to do something different with this character, something that makes him a little bit larger than life, and certainly larger than his relatively square brother. It’s just not quite enough to justify the gimmick. Not yet, anyway.

Previously: Skin in the Game