Journalist-turned-TV producer David Simon is particularly good at two things: exposing the mindless, brutal institutions and systems that grind many Americans down, and humanizing people who normally exist at the margins of polite conversation.
When Simon tackled those subjects in HBO's The Wire, he created one of the best series on television. Now he's created the best new show of the 2017 fall season in HBO's The Deuce (debuting Sunday), a gritty, urban drama about the moment pornography became "street legal" in New York City, and the commodification of flesh became an industry. (Editor's note: This is a show about pornography, so, as you might expect, this review discusses adult themes.)
The setting for Simon's latest urban fable is 1970s Times Square, before the days of Disney stores and chain restaurants. This is back when streetwalkers worked "The Deuce" (slang for West 42nd Street in Midtown) accepting occasional police roundups and overnight stays in a holding cell as the cost of doing business.
Because it's Simon (working with Wire buddies like crime novelist Richard Price and Deuce co-creator George Pelecanos) the world created here is so accurately run-down and sleazy you want to take a shower after every episode. Prostitutes give oral sex in phone booths and cops shrug when they have a night where there's only a couple of rapes in the neighborhood. In one impressive wide shot, a character walks across a sprawling street filled with period-specific cars as the city skyline rises in the distance, looking exactly like the time of John Lindsay and Max's Kansas City.
The show is also loosely based on reality, inspired by the real-life stories of two twin brothers who served as frontmen for the Gambino crime family in Manhattan. James Franco plays fictionalized versions of both men — Vincent, a straight-shooting bar manager, and Frankie, a charismatic, degenerate gambler. Vincent starts out as a typical Simon protagonist: He's smart, working-class, unassuming and more than a little flawed, ground-down by two thankless jobs and a wayward wife. Opportunity comes knocking when a Gambino captain sets him up to run his own bar.
But Franco's role isn't the gimmick it might seem. He gives Vincent and Frankie markedly different attitudes — Vincent in particular becomes the guy you want to root for even when his wife's cheating pushes him to leave her and their two kids for a room in a Times Square flophouse. Franco even directs two of the show's eight episodes.
The real revelation here is Maggie Gyllenhaal, who shines as Candy, a prostitute who begins to see a way off the street by moving into porn films. Candy works independently, without the protection of the pimps who controlled most of the Deuce's streetwalkers, and Gyllenhaal exposes herself both physically and emotionally. When one kid tries to get a freebie after their first session ends quickly, Candy is quick to school him: Car salesmen don't give a customer an extra car just because he closes a sale quickly.
The sex in The Deuce isn't titillating, and that's by design. It's a business transaction: either a momentary pleasure sold by a prostitute or an awkward fantasy depicted in amateurish films. It is, however, explicit, with equal opportunity nudity (including at least three instances where male equipment is shown in an, um, excited state, which I have never seen on a TV series before).
It's tough to imagine today, when the Internet offers 24-hour access to pornography, but in the early 1970s movies and magazines depicting sex were illegal. Then a Supreme Court decision tied such laws to local community standards, and suddenly pornography was legal in New York City. As one character, a porn director, explains, "There's been a change in the law about community standards. Apparently, New York has none."
Before long, police are pushing prostitutes off the streets and into mob-owned brothels, which pay the cops for protection. Porn movie producers are paying those same prostitutes a pittance to star in their movies, and pimps are fighting to stay in control as the sex trade transforms beneath their feet.
Along the way, we hear pimps speak earnestly about why even their women want them to fail; we watch weary cops pursue pointless busts to serve the agendas of those above them; and occasionally violent flares take the lives of characters we have come to care about.
Simon and Pelecanos were well aware of the fact that they're two white men recreating a world in which women were brutally oppressed, so they took care to include female collaborators like writers Megan Abbott and Lisa Lutz, and director Michelle MacLaren. Maggie Gyllenhaal is also a producer on the show.
Almost every major character is a cog in someone else's wheel struggling to stay afloat while wading through the muck of life on the Deuce. Those compelling, artfully drawn characters keep you enthralled even as the show goes about the slow business of showing how pimps, prostitutes, the mob and police helped turn a back-alley pursuit into a billion-dollar industry.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There's been a fair amount of nostalgia for the 1970s on TV, from shows on the birth of rap music to the Netflix remake of the sitcom "One Day At A Time." And now HBO has a new series set in 1970s New York City.
(SOUNDBITE OF CURTIS MAYFIELD SONG, "IF THERE'S A HELL BELOW WE'RE ALL GOING TO GO (DON'T WORRY)")
SHAPIRO: The show is called "The Deuce." And there will be some explicit talk in the review we're about to hear because the series is about how pornography became a legal industry. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says it's a show about sex work that is anything but sexy.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "The Deuce" transports viewers to Times Square in 1971, long before the days when Disney and Bubba Gump Shrimp catered to wide-eyed tourists. Instead, garbage lines the streets where prostitutes and pimps ply their trade. Maggie Gyllenhaal shines as Candy, a streetwalker who works alone, refusing the protection of a pimp despite the best efforts of Rodney, played by rapper Method Man.
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METHOD MAN: (As Rodney) Between my expertise and your good looks - shoot, thoroughbred like you, we could own this damn street.
MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) Rodney, sugar, I'm going to keep what I earn. I don't need you. I don't need anybody else. Let me do my thing. You're busting on my groove, Rodney.
DEGGANS: This is the world of "The Deuce," the nickname for West 42nd Street in Midtown. It's a dangerous, volatile place that also becomes a birthplace for the American porn industry once entrepreneurs like Candy realize she and her fellow streetwalkers can make a safer living performing on film. As the show begins, films showing actual sex are illegal in New York, sold in brown paper bags under the counter in sleazy bookstores. But Candy sees the writing on the wall, begging a director to show her how to make sex films.
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GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) If they can make and sell that in Europe, it's not going to be long before we can make and sell it here.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) How do you know?
GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) It's America, right? When do we ever leave a dollar for the other guy to pick up?
DEGGANS: "The Deuce" was created by David Simon and George Pelecanos, who worked together on "The Wire," Simon's classic crime drama for HBO. And "The Deuce" is the best new show of the fall season. It offers a visceral, detailed story of how flesh became a commodity in America. Often that process involves the abuse of women by pimps, brothel owners and filmmakers. Gyllenhaal noted during a press conference that the explicit scenes of sex and occasional violence in "The Deuce" are important.
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GYLLENHAAL: I think it's become clear in a way that maybe it wasn't totally clear a year ago that there is a huge amount of misogyny in the world. And here we have this opportunity to pick it up and lay it on the table and to do it in a way that's thoughtful and smart and also real. So that includes having to see some things that look violent and uncomfortable.
DEGGANS: The sex in "The Deuce" is never sexy. It's a series of desperate transactions. As Simon said during that press conference, "The Deuce" is trying to tell a story about titillation and misogyny without using those things to draw an audience.
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DAVID SIMON: It's the show's reason for being. Now, you know, in America we don't sell a can of beer or a Lincoln Continental without sexual connotation and sexual imagery that encompasses the world of porn that we've inherited.
DEGGANS: Well aware that they were two guys writing about female oppression, Simon and Pelecanos brought in female writers and a female director, "Breaking Bad's" Michelle MacLaren. Gyllenhaal also serves as a producer. James Franco plays two characters, twin brothers based on real guys who owned bars and brothels as frontmen for the mob. Franco plays straight-shooting bar manager Vincent Martino and his charismatic, degenerate gambler of brother, Frankie. Here, they both discuss Vincent's decision to leave his wife, who was cheating on him.
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JAMES FRANCO: (As Vincent Martino) I'm done. Out for good.
(As Frankie Martino) You sure?
(As Vincent Martino) Positive.
(As Frankie Martino) I don't want to say nothing bad about your wife, have you two get back together and have you mad at me forever.
(As Vincent Martino) Marriage is dead. Say what you feel.
(As Frankie Martino) Dead.
(As Vincent Martino) Yeah.
(As Frankie Martino) Like, for real, dead.
(As Vincent Martino) I said dead.
(As Frankie Martino) Hundred percent.
(As Vincent Martino) Hundred percent.
(As Frankie Martino) Never going back.
(As Vincent Martino) Yes.
DEGGANS: After a while, Franco makes you forget you're seeing two guys played by one person - really. Ultimately, the characters are the real triumph of "The Deuce" - flawed, compelling examples of the price paid when America's sexual revolution is repurposed to create one of the biggest businesses in the world. I'm Eric Deggans.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF THERE'S A HELL BELOW WE'RE ALL GOING TO GO (DON'T WORRY)")
CURTIS MAYFIELD: (Singing) Sisters, brothers and the whiteys... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.