‘The Deuce’ Introduces All Its Pimps And Players In A Seductive Premiere

Though The Deuce series premiere has been available On Demand for a couple of weeks, its official premiere was tonight. I reviewed the series as a whole earlier this week, and spoke with creators George Pelecanos and David Simon a few weeks back, and now I have specific thoughts on the opening episode coming up just as soon as I’m drafted by the Dodgers…

“This is my job, Stuart.” –Candy

The Wire was, like a lot of the great revolutionary dramas of this century, a Trojan horse, sneaking in a lacerating commentary on the crumbling state of the American dream, disguised as a cops and crooks thriller. Most of the work Simon and Pelecanos have done for TV has functioned that way: Come for the genre (or these actors), stay for the civics lesson!

The Deuce pilot is deceptive in a different way. Structurally, it’s very much a David Simon pilot: dozens of characters, only a few of them — primarily Vincent Martino, the bartending “good” twin — given abundant screen time to fully establish who they are and what they’re about, barely any plot to speak of, but a clearly-delineated world. I expected all of that, and I got that.

Where the pilot suckered me in was with how much fun it wound up being, which in turn set me up to be floored by that final scene with C.C. cutting on Ashley in the hotel stairwell.

I was expecting bleakness from a show about sex workers, yet much of the pilot feels almost like a romp: everyone knows their role and is more or less happy to fill it, and everyone accepts everyone else for who they are and what they do. C.C. recruits Lori at the bus station, and just when you think he’s a predator about to ruin an unsuspecting innocent, she reveals that she came to New York to work for a man exactly like him. The cops and pimps get their shoes shined at the same stand, bantering while they do it, and everyone eats breakfast at the same diner, which represents the unofficial hub of the Deuce’s pimp/prostitute economy. We get to hear the pimps debate management philosophy and customer demographics (Reggie is afraid a potential recruit would be too intimidating for his white clients), hear Candy explain the risks and rewards of working without a pimp, even see how some johns, like Darlene’s elderly movie fan client, aren’t primarily interested in the sex itself. It is, as Candy patiently lays out to young Stuart, a job, and while it’s a job that understandably dismays many, it is still the reality of these characters’ day-to-day existence, and the pilot lays out the mechanics of it all with energy and even charm.

Midway through, it seems the pilot is ready to point out that this isn’t all fun and games, when it appears that Darlene is being horribly assaulted by a man she passes in a building, but this is soon revealed to be a pre-arranged routine between her and a client. It’s a routine that the guy takes further than planned, and it’s still viscerally ugly to experience as he beats her and calls her a whore, but Darlene also seems unfazed by it, and is able to calm her pimp Larry down when he sees what’s been done to her. (Even within a handful of scenes in the pilot, it’s remarkable what the writers, Dominique Fishback, and Gbenga Akinnagbe are able to do in establishing this relationship and how skilled she has become in cooling off his temper — which is so famous, Candy specifically warns Lori about it — before it can ever come to a full boil.) It’s startling, but rapidly defused, and then we’re on to more hijinks with the teenagers choosing Candy over the more imposing Thunder Thighs for Stuart’s birthday party.

And then… well, then Vinnie — who is himself a character the show rapidly conditions us to look past the morally questionable actions of — walks in on C.C. carving up Ashley as punishment for her complaints, and Vinnie turns and walks the hell away. The Deuce itself is careful to never objectify any of its women, even when they’re naked and performing sex acts, but this is a very different kind of objectification on display in the closing scene, as C.C. literally treats Ashley like some thing that he owns and can do whatever he wants to. C.C. is a charismatic man who always seems to know the right thing to say in a situation, and there are moments where we see him opt for the carrot rather than the stick when dealing with Lori and Ashley, but fundamentally he is a man who will do something like this because he thinks it’s his right and duty to do so to keep this woman in line. And just as the cops will eat and joke alongside the pimps because everyone understands what’s going on, Vinnie’s refusal to intercede on Ashley’s behalf is a thing that is sadly understood. It’s not just that C.C. is a threat to him, but that this is part of that world, and why would Vinnie want to risk himself trying to interfere with that?

It’s a testament to Pelecanos, Simon, Michelle MacLaren, and everyone else that the preceding 80-odd minutes are as lively and intoxicating as they are. But the pilot ends where it needs to, in a moment that provides a bracing slap in the face regarding everything we’ve seen to that point, and provides context to everything that will follow through the rest of this terrific debut season.

Some other thoughts:

* The show suckers us in with Vinnie as well, using his own natural charm (James Franco at his most appealing) and industriousness — working two jobs, being clever enough to put the House of Korea waitresses in leotards to give the place a whiff of sex without going so far as to chase away customers (it’s Hooters before there was Hooters), covering for Frankie’s gambling debts — to allow us to look past how easily he moves out on his family to stay at that seedy Times Square hotel. No, it’s not a happy marriage, but the writers and Zoe Kazan also smartly don’t pin all the blame on Andrea, pointing out that neither of them has exactly done the right thing, but Vinnie still walks out on his kids to spend more time around the Deuce.

* There’s much less of Frankie than of Vinnie, and there’s also not a huge difference in their looks — Frankie’s hair is slicked back, Vinnie’s sideburns are a bit longer — so instead the pilot uses a similar trick that 13 Reasons Why employed to distinguish flashback Clay from present Clay: Vinnie suffers a head wound in the opening scene’s assault, and spends the rest of the episode sporting a prominent bandage so you’ll know it’s him and not Frankie. Later episodes will sometimes feature Frankie wearing a hat as another distinguishing feature, but in time the performance itself is enough. Even here, the sequence where Frankie struts down the street like Tony Manero already establishes him as someone clearly separate from his brother.

* Darlene’s elderly john watches A Tale of Two Cities with her. Though the story doesn’t involve biological twins, Carton and Darnay look enough alike that (19th century literary spoilers) one is able to sacrifice his life to accept a death sentence passed on the other. Meanwhile, we see Vinnie putting himself out to help his own twin, but could this be foreshadowing for something more terrible to befall the Martino brothers later in the series?

* Boy, MacLaren’s direction is great throughout, capturing the literal and metaphorical filth of it all, drawing superb performances from both the big names like Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal, but also lesser-known people like Gary Carr (as C.C.) and Dominique Fishback (as Darlene), and only occasionally winking at the audience (Stuart moans right before we see a subway train barreling down the tracks).

* Vincent’s by far the most prominent character not directly involved in the sex industry when the series begins (though the hookers and pimps are all regulars at House of Korea, and he’s staying in the same hotel where Candy and the others conduct business), but the pilot also starts introducing other characters who are either prostitution-adjacent (Lawrence Gilliard Jr. and Don Harvey as Times Square beat cops Chris Alston and Danny Flanagan) or not really involved in the area at all (Margarita Levieva as wise-beyond-her-years college student Abby, who seems more interested in Vinnie than her classes, and who has this photo of a shirtless Robert Redford on her bedroom wall).

* As is usually the case with a Simon joint, the opening credits are fabulous: a kaleidoscope of Times Square imagery scored to Curtis Mayfield’s “If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go.” The closing theme, meanwhile, is “Assume the Position” by Lafayette Gilchrist.

* Most of The Wire alums in the cast are instantly recognizable, or else (like Chris Bauer) have yet to appear. But if you wondered why diner counterman Leon’s raspy voice sounds so familiar, it’s because that’s Slim Charles himself, Anwan Glover, working under that impressive afro.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast.