As a kid in the early ’80s, my Saturday afternoons were often spent taking the bus into Manhattan, then getting discount theater tickets with my parents. This was the pre-Giuliani Times Square, when it was less a well-scrubbed and obscenely priced tourist trap than America’s not-so-secret shame, and the walk from the bus terminal always took us through a gauntlet of porn theater marquees.
“Mom, what’s an ‘X’ movie?” I asked once, puzzled as always by the signs that my parents seemed afraid to even glance at.
My mother looked at me and said, with great solemnity, “Alan, it’s a place where lonely people go. And when they leave, they’re even lonelier than when they went in.”
The 42nd Street that inspired that bit of improvised maternal wisdom was the one born in the events depicted in The Deuce, the fantastic new HBO drama from The Wire gang — co-created by George Pelecanos and David Simon, its sprawling cast peppered with Wire alums like Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Chris Bauer, Gbenga Akinnagbe, and Method Man — in collaboration with higher-profile actor/producers like James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The title is the nickname for 42nd Street, in an era (the story begins in 1971) before pornographic films had gone mainstream, but when cops were on a first-name basis with every hooker and pimp on the block.
The Deuce (the premiere has been available On Demand for a few weeks, but the series officially debuts Sunday at 9; I’ve seen all eight episodes) recognizes the loneliness my mother tried to warn me about, but takes a more complex view of the business — including the way that some of its sex worker characters consider pornographic movies a big step up in safety and dignity from strolling the Deuce looking for clients. Those women are by and large on the street because they have no other choice — whether coming from extreme poverty and/or abusive homes — but some find a perverse form of freedom in the work, even as each detail of their lives is controlled by their pimps. The huge ensemble includes both characters who work directly in the sex trade and those who are adjacent to it spiritually and/or geographically, and the ones from the latter group often question the decisions made from the former. When a waitress wonders, for instance, why one of the prostitutes would return to the work even after getting a bus ticket out of town, an annoyed sex worker suggests, “Maybe she likes her life the way it is. You ever think of that?”
The series picks up shortly before a perfect storm of political and legal events — including NYC mayor John Lindsay’s long shot run for president, a series of court cases overturning various obscenity laws, and organized crime’s desire to increase their revenue from prostitution and pornography — slowly but inexorably pushes all the illicit activity from the sidewalks of the Deuce to massage parlors and theaters and adult entertainment emporiums indoors. (When one character sketches out a rough design of the first individual porn movie stall, it’s presented as a Eureka moment worthy of Archimedes himself.) It in many ways resembles the Hamsterdam season of The Wire — what if certain criminal activities in a major city were unofficially decriminalized? — only this one’s loosely based on real events.
Perhaps the most startling thing about The Deuce is just how much fun it is. This shouldn’t be a surprise, given how many laughs and thrills Simon, Pelecanos, and others were able to wring out of bleak Wire subjects like addiction, murder, and the overall collapse of the American Dream. Yet it’s still remarkable how tonally nimble the new show manages to be despite having no illusions about the psychic cost of selling one’s body day after day, year after year. There’s not just black comedy in this world, but more straightforward mirth and charm, like a scene where beat cop Chris Alston (Gilliard) takes Chinese delivery orders from all the women he just locked up on a periodic sweep of the Deuce.
Every character is given such a vivid inner life, and the show pulses with such energy, that it — like The Wire (and, to a lesser degree, Tremé) before it — manages to get away with various indulgences that have dragged down too many other recent dramas that have aspired to follow in Simon’s footsteps. The story drifts, with little delineation from one episode to another beyond “this is what happens next,” and it takes its sweet time getting around to the porno movie of it all, not really spending much time in that arena until the last few episodes. Doesn’t matter. The world and its citizens are so rich that it’s a pleasure to spend time in it at all, as written by this team, as directed by the great Michelle MacLaren and others (including Franco for a couple of episodes), and as performed by this superb cast.
Franco plays identical twins: Vince, a charming bar manager with a knack for bridging barriers of class, sexuality, and more in the service of showing people a good time; and Frankie, a gambler and all-around screw-up who smiles through life because he knows Vince will inevitably bail him out of his latest mistake. Franco these days tends to mix the leading man roles that pay the bills with the stranger projects that clearly excite him more. This gives him the opportunity to do both at once, and if Frankie ultimately proves more distraction than genuine character (with the exception of one episode late in the season, he tends to show up, cause trouble, then slip away once the grown-ups start talking), I’ll accept him as part of the cost of getting Franco to play Vince, who’s so appealing and versatile that he could be the central character of a show with almost any premise. He just happens to run a bar on the Deuce, where he becomes a conduit to mob captain Rudy Pipilo (Michael Rispoli) expanding the Gambino Family’s interest in the sex trade.
The brothers are based on real figures from the era, as to a degree is Gyllenhaal’s Candy (real name Eileen), the weary veteran streetwalker who insists on working without a pimp, with all the risks and rewards that entails. (“Nobody makes money off of my pussy but me,” she tells one of the pimps who keeps trying to recruit her.) The sheer magnetism of the performance make Candy seem invulnerable at first, yet she seems to hit a new low in each episode, with Gyllenhaal powerfully showing how much each indignity takes from her.
As C.C., a pimp who has invested all of his self-worth in the mythology of his chosen profession, Gary Carr (like Idris Elba, an English actor fitting seamlessly into a very American David Simon show) is alternately charismatic, terrifying, and pitiful; it’s spellbinding work. But everyone is wonderful, including (to name just a few of many others) Dominique Fishback as a prostitute who has seemingly seen it all at a young age (including how to navigate the temper of her pimp Larry, played so well by Akinnagbe), Emily Meade as a new girl in town excited to join C.C.’s stable, Margarita Levieva as a savvy college student fascinated by the scene in and around Vince’s bar (and by Vince himself), Chris Coy from Tremé as a gay bartender who educates Vince on how dangerous life out of the closet can be once you head north of the Village, David Krumholtz as a harried adult film director showing Candy the ropes, and Natalie Paul as a reporter just trying to figure out what motivates women to remain in the thrall of C.C. and his peers. Like The Wire, it gives greater narrative weight to some characters than others, but like The Wire, it constantly makes clear that it could follow any of these people for an hour or more and it would be riveting.
(Also like The Wire, it has so many characters that it can be tough to keep track of all the players and their roles. Just when I thought I had figured out which prostitutes worked for which pimps, the fifth episode features a trade of a prostitute from one pimp to another; “Think of yourself as a ballplayer,” she’s told.)
As it carefully starts moving characters like Candy closer to the adult film world, The Deuce also lays down how that world began to bleed out into the more legitimate one — Vince is inspired by the prostitutes to dress his waitresses in leotards, which gives the bar a veneer of sex without making the patrons too embarrassed (he essentially invents Hooters) — on the path to a world in 2017 where sex can be used to sell almost everything, no matter how mainstream.
The show has no interest in selling its own sex. It’s frequently graphic, but rarely titillating, save for the occasional glimpses of genuine passion between consenting, non-paying adults. (And not even always in that circumstance; one episode elegantly lays out the challenges of dating and having sex for pleasure when someone usually does those things for work.) It tends to get more excited by music of the era — the gorgeous opening credits sequence is accompanied by Curtis Mayfield’s funky “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go,” which makes a nice companion to The Wire‘s “Way Down in the Hole” — and even the cars (if you’ve read any of Pelecanos’ books — and particularly ones set in the ’70s like King Suckerman and What It Was — you will not be surprised in the least by how much C.C. and the other pimps like to discuss their rides) than by anything to do with the commodification of flesh.
As Candy bluntly puts it to a teenage john requesting a discount because he finished so quickly, “This is my job.” It’s an embarrassment to the mothers of the world, and a scandal to whoever still considers themselves to be part of polite society, but to a lot of women and men in this world — and the world of today — this is simply how they make a living. They have no illusions about it, and neither does The Deuce, which is why it’s so great.