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‘The Deuce’ Season Premiere: Sucking in the Seventies

‘The Wire’ co-creator David Simon returns with a gritty, dirty look at sleazy paradise that was Times Square circa the early 1970s.

'The Wire' co-creator David Simon returns with a gritty, dirty look at sleazy paradise that was Times Square circa the early 1970s.

Set in 1971, David Simon’s sleazier-than-thou new HBO show treats Manhattan like a Magic 8-Ball, where losers from the outer boroughs, uptown or across the country get shaken up; the hope is that they come up with a better future for themselves than “REPLY HAZY, ASK AGAIN LATER.” Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Eileen, an ex-suburbanite better known as “Candy,” one of Times Square’s most in-demand sex workers – she can switch identities simply by removing her blonde explosion of a wig. James Franco stars both as Vinnie, a Brooklyn bartender who slaves away seven nights a week, and his dirtbag twin brother Frankie, whose two most prominent personality traits are wisecracks and gambling debts. The renaissance-man actor eases into both roles simply by growing a period-appropriate moustache – a facial-hair accoutrement that transports you to the age of Richard Nixon and Travis Bickle more effectively than a million music cues. It’s a show about transformation, both onscreen and off.

Co-created by The Wire/Treme impresario and his frequent collaborator/acclaimed crime novelist George Pelecanos, The Deuce boasts an impressive array of talent in the executive producer chairs alone, including Gyllenhaal, Franco, director Michelle MacLaren (Game of Thrones/Breaking Bad), and The Night Of co-creator Richard Price. It also comes hot on the heals of HBO’s other big-budget–era NYC period piece from a pedigreed showrunner: The Sopranos/Boardwalk Empire vet Terrence Winter’s ill-fated music-biz drama Vinyl. The two series’ proximity makes apples-to-apples comparisons both irresistible and instructive. One title conjures up the nostalgic idea of a lost golden age, when music, and by extension life itself, was real, maaaan. The other is just a forgotten and nondescript nickname for 42nd Street. This ain’t no dream factory, kids.

That gimlet-eyed approach extends to the way MacLaren, one of TV’s most skilled directors, shoots the city itself. She makes no attempt to treat the urban wasteland as a source of glamour or titillation, nor to win an argument about the aesthetic shortcomings of the post-Giuliani, Disneyfied Times Square. Thanks to your memories of seedy cinema classics from Taxi Driver to The Warriors, the general vibe is familiar and retains a certain residual movie-cool. But as far as the show itself is concerned, this place, these people, these buildings and cars and clothes and movie marquees … it all just happens to be the way these folks lived in this city at this time. Once the familiar jocular rhythms of David Simon’s chatty dialogue kicks in – as in the marvellous little scene where pimps and cops banter while getting their shoes shined together on a sunny morning – you might as well be in The Wire‘s Baltimore.

Even pay-cable prestige-TV sex receives a make-under. There’s nudity galore, as you might expect from a show in large part about sex work in the adult-theatre capital of North America – or from a project where Franco is determined to stretch his chops by dropping his pants. But what happens when bodies start slappin’? A college student razzes the professor she’s sleeping with for making funny faces when he climaxes. A john who’s into rough stuff boasts a pubic thatch so thick beneath his paunch that you’d swear he was wearing animal-print bikini briefs. A teenager treated to Candy’s services as a birthday present achieves takeoff without even leaving the launchpad, then argues he deserves a second shot for free since he took so little time. Even Vinnie’s tryst with a coworker every bit as attractive as him is staged as awkwardly and joylessly as possible, like both of them are just trying to get it over with. Who knows? Maybe they are.

The same cannot be said for the episode itself. Clocking in at around eighty minutes – nearly the length of many of the movie landmarks set in the era it’s portraying – it features a whole lot of … well, atmosphere is putting it generously. As we slowly get to know the sprawling cast, few if any surprises are on offer: smiling pimps with hidden mean streaks, workaholic husbands with restless spouses, college kids dabbling on the wrong side of the tracks, sex workers who (gasp!) have a family they’ve left behind, yadda yadda yadda. It’s tough to justify the sheer amount of screentime involved for figures who do so little but play their appointed roles. The one curveball is Darlene, a prostitute who seems to specialise entirely in clients who seek from her what they’re too timid to find elsewhere. Her first regular is into rape roleplay, apologetically paying her extra for getting carried away; her second is a quiet old man who just hires her to watch old movies with him.

The show is not above running out the minutes in more ostentatious ways either. Frequently, the camera follows Vinnie around as he wanders through Manhattan, seemingly for no reason other than to follow him around Manhattan – i.e. to show off the production’s lavish, obsessively detailed, and no doubt incredibly expensive recreation of the city circa 1971. To an extent, can you really blame them? But when Franco spends a nearly Twin Peaks-ian amount of travel time just to find a bookie and have a 30-second conversation in order to place a bet, or when he steps out of the subway and stares gobsmacked at Times Square as if he’s never seen it before, the seams begin to show.

This insistence on lingering on the series’ artifice results in the pilot’s most cringeworthy moment: the introduction of Frankie. Vinnie’s lowlife brother pops out of hiding from Mafia loan sharks and cruises into the bar where his elder sibling works, all smiles. The camera keeps the two of them in frame together as often as possible, even placing a mirror behind the bar so that Frankie’s face stays visible where other shows doing the actors-playing-twins bit would simply shoot a body double from behind. The problem is that the CGI involved here is completely transparent and, in the context of all this down-and-dirty realism, hugely distracting. In a year where Ewan McGregor and Kyle MacLachlan convincingly doubled up and faced off in Fargo and Twin Peaks respectively, the comparison does The Deuce no favours.

But if there’s one thing we know about David Simon shows, it’s that you can’t judge a book by its cover, or a series by its pilot. The Wire took, bare minimum, until the first episode of its second season, a total left turn from the plot of the first, before you could see just how big a story he was trying to tell. That was Baltimore. The Big Apple, famously, has eight million stories. Let’s see how many The Deuce winds up covering.