In the last 18 months we’ve seen 2 sprawling period dramas attempted by US cable, both set in New York in the 1970s.
While HBO’s Vinyl tackled the music industry, Netflix series The Get Down sunk its teeth into the rise of hip hop. Now HBO turns to the porn industry in The Deuce in 1971.
But rather than chart Playboy and Penthouse origins, or even the industry of the San Fernando Valley, The Deuce depicts the legalisation of porn and the push to remove prostitution from the streets.
If you’re just tuning in for a flesh-fest you should probably look away now. It’s there fleetingly, but it isn’t always pretty (overweight clients, girls that are trying to maintain some level of desire…). Instead The Deuce is a character and social drama from David Simon &
George Pelecanos (The Wire, Treme) and is something of a slow burn.
There’s a plethora of characters, many seemingly disparate, in the 90 minute opening episode.
The central figure is Brooklyn bar tender Vinnie (James Franco) working 7 nights a week for his young family despite the fact his indifferent wife Andrea (Zoe Kazan) is having affairs. But then, Vinnie is no poster boy for fidelity, either. He also has a twin brother Frankie (Franco in dual roles) whose gambling debts see him in deep with the mob, and pressure is put on Vinnie to get square.
Amongst the ensemble are several prostitute and pimp roles including “Candy” (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a streetwise prostitute whose son lives with his grandmother while Candy turns tricks. No kissing thanks. The flamboyant pimp C.C. (Gary Carr) tries to recruit Lori (Emily Meade) from Minnesota into prostitution, but not everything is as it seems. Then there is Darlene (Dominique Fishback), whose elderly client just wants to watch movies with her instead of having sex.
Meanwhile NYU student Abby (Margarita Levieva) is busted for trying to buy speed in Hell’s Kitchen but can’t talk her way out of an arrest by officer Flanagan (Don Harvey).
How the jigsaw pieces fit together is rarely apparent, but there is a lot being set up here under director Michelle MacLaren and it uses power, exploitation, politics and survival as part of its symphony. Simon and Pelecanos bring authenticity to the dialogue straight off the street.
Visually the attention to detail is outstanding. The gaudy fashions and meticulous hairstyles are surrounded with authentic locations and trappings of the era: shoeshiners, jackhammers, traffic, transistors, smoky pool rooms, peephouses, adult cinemas, Times Square.. there’s even the distant twin towers. If The Get Down had splashes of theatrics, The Deuce has gritty realism.
James Franco (possibly upstaged by Ewan McGregor’s double take in Fargo), Maggie Gyllenhaal and Margarita Levieva are the early stand-outs here, in a cast that captures the Brooklyn vernacular. Gyllenhaal’s best moment is with a nervous young client hoping for more than her services provide. Levieva poses the premiere’s best moral question, “Ever wonder what it’s like to be objectified?” 1970s, this is 2017 calling….
Yet the parts are sometimes more satisfying than the whole which doesn’t always hang together as yet, perhaps a consequence of setting up a big ensemble, and having to play in a world full of rough diamonds where our sympathies hover, looking for a home.
In between Game of Thrones and Westworld drinks, The Deuce may have to work hard for broad cable TV appeal, but it is surely in good hands.
The Deuce premieres 11am Monday on Showcase.