HBO's The Deuce is a fascinating look at the rise of the modern-day porn industry, but it's also one of the most compelling workplace dramas in years.
HBO's The Deuce is a fascinating look at the rise of the modern-day porn industry as told through the lens of an expansive ensemble that includes James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Gary Carr, and Method Man. The multi-faceted narrative detailing intimacies in the personal and professional lives of seemingly disparate individuals is similar in structure to The Wire and Treme, other HBO series with a comprehensive narratives hailing from David Simon and George Pelecanos. This time, the two are credited as co-creators on the eight-episode series, and just as their previous collaboration was so much more than just a cop show, there's more to The Deuce than a gritty tale set within the flesh trade; it's also one of the most compelling workplace dramas in years.
Set in the '70s, The Deuce meticulously recreates the seediness of '70s New York City Times Square. Lined with porno theater marquees, X-rated bookstores, prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers, and a seemingly endless array of fascinating randos (the stories of whom would likely make a decent episode of television themselves), the area is far from the flashy, corporate-branded tourist trap that is today, though it's no more obscene in its attempt to peddle its wares from the street.
Directed by Michelle MacLaren, the near feature-length pilot follows brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino, with both parts played by a mustachioed James Franco (though the mustaches, like Franco's performances, vary just enough you can tell them apart), and group of prostitutes and their pimps. Vincent is a hard-working bartender slinging drinks at two establishments seemingly 24/7, or at least enough that he never sees the family he's purporting to support. The premiere nearly makes a running gag of Vincent coming home late at night to find his wife (Zoe Kazan) out and his mother-in-law on the verge of passing out in front of the television set. His brother, Frankie, is more of a low-level hustler, with gambling debts across the city substantial enough to be the entry point for an organized crime figure to enter the picture.
The Deuce isn't content to tell the tale of two brothers eking out a meager existence amidst the trash-strewn streets of the city, and soon focuses much of its attention on the women in the sex industry; namely, Maggie Gyllenhaal's Eileen, who goes by the name Candy when plying her trade. Eileen is a smart woman who works pimp-free, something newcomer Lori (Emily Meade) claims she doesn't have the drive to do. As such, the pimps, played by the aforementioned Method Man, Gary Carr, and Gbenga Akinnagbe, as well as honest cop Chris Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) become another stratum of the multi-layered narrative that matches the breadth of the ensemble with the kind of fascinating depth of storytelling expected from a David Simon project.
While establishing the stories of the Martino brothers, Eileen, and the various prostitutes and those working directly or indirectly with them (not to mention their customers), The Deuce makes the sex industry the driving force behind the season's larger arc, but also clearly draws a line between "sex" and "industry", putting a greater emphasis on the latter, thereby turning the series into an unlikely but endlessly compelling workplace drama that exquisitely marries the often cheerless routine of earning a living with the one thing so many people secretly (or not so secretly) live for.
As it was in The Wire, Treme, and Simon's underappreciated 2015 Oscar Isaac-starring miniseries, Show Me a Hero, The Deuce delivers its most persuasive moments through an exploration of the processes that, for better or worse, allow institutions to rise and fall, and most importantly, dictate the fortunes of those caught in the gears of such a machine. Here it's seen in Vincent being violently mugged after making a late-night bank deposit for the bar he manages only to begin work again just hours later, or (in a later episode) in Simon veteran Chris Bauer's Bobby Dwyer, a construction worker who finds himself overseeing another area in the sex industry. It's about work and labor and the economics of it, and that idea becomes the text of Eileen's encounter with an overeager teenage boy celebrating his birthday with a trip to 42nd Street and an extremely brief exchange in a seedy motel. Gyllenhaal's character spells it out for him (and the audience) as bluntly as possible: for Eileen, this is work; it functions on the same basic principle of selling cars. The moment sacrifices nuance to establish a through line on which the rest of the series moves.
The Deuce isn't all workaday drudgery, though. The premiere is leavened by time spent listening to others pour over the minor details and trivialities of their various trades. Meade's Lori quickly falls in with Carr's C.C. After a sly sales pitch at a bus station is revealed to have been unnecessary, the two get breakfast at a greasy spoon diner that's an unofficial gathering spot for pimps and pros. Here Simon and Pelecanos, as they did in the opening sequence that turned a conversation of the business at hand into a discussion on Nixon and the Vietnam War, allow the routine sameness of the everyday world to creep into a world that is anything but. Here, a mundane conversation over a plate of eggs and some burnt coffee after a long night of turning tricks is no different from those who end a long day knocking back a few drinks at a local watering hole.
Through this, The Deuce is able to have its cake and eat it too. The intimate focus on work and the plight of the (often beleaguered) worker helps the series avoid the exploitation tag that it seems likely to court in certain critical circles. That's not to say Simon and Pelecanos aren't walking a fine line in attempting to depict an industry that runs on the commodification of women in a story told from a humanist angle. The trickiness is made all too clear in the closing moments of the premiere when C.C. turns violent with one of his girls. The moment is hard to watch (even as its filtered through Vincent's eye before he turns a blind one to the woman's suffering), but it underlines the tenet of the series and casts an unambiguous shadow on the business of this fascinating and entertaining workplace drama.
The Deuce continues next Sunday with 'Show and Prove' @9pm on HBO.
Photos: Paul Schiraldi/HBO