The Deuce "Pilot" Review
David Simon, the co-creator of The Wire and the under-appreciated Generation Kill, once again makes his foray into a highly specific facet of America with his latest HBO drama, The Deuce. Whilst The Wire tackled the contemporary 'War on Drugs' and the resulting collateral damage that shook the foundations of a city, and Generation Kill examined, with a journalist's eye and a mournful heart, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, The Deuce looks back to 1971, Times Square, New York City.
Prior to the insane proliferation of Playboy magazines and the like, the sex industry in America operated strictly in the shadows, occupying the same dark space as racketeering and drugs. From what can be gleaned so far, The Deuce will be about how a street trade, dominated by visionless pimps, was transformed by a few pioneers to become the multi-billion dollar industry it is today.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is Candy, the rare kind of prostitute who works without a pimp so she can keep all the cash. Though that also means she's without protection, save for her street smarts. There's a terrific scene in which her customer, a baby-faced college boy, begs for another go because he finished prematurely. She patiently explains in so many words, and with a deftly articulated comparison to cars and car salesmen, that she's in the business of selling orgasms. And once you get there, the transaction is complete. Vincent, played by James Franco, is an overworked barman. He leaves behind his crumbling marriage to make something of himself in Times Square. Though they don't meet in this episode, their partnership in the world of pornography seems inevitable.
Incidentally, and amusingly, Franco also plays Vincent's twin brother, Frankie. A case of mistaken identity over gambling debts leads to Vincent damn near losing his life at the beginning of the episode. Vincent is responsible, if cantankerous, and Frankie is all oily charm and cheap smiles. James Franco inhabits these roles fully and with a degree of subtlety, and plays off against himself very well.
Judging solely by the premiere, this might shape up to be David Simon's most accessible work to date. It crackles with wit and confidence, qualities you usually wouldn't attribute to pilots. Often, even the best television shows begin with pilots that are weighed down with the tedious yet wholly necessary task of simple introductions and spelling out in the simplest terms What The Show is All About. The difference is that this pilot makes a fine meal out of those necessary nuts and bolts, and its thematic resonance is neatly imbued in the characterisation.
Though there are only eight episodes scheduled for this first season of The Deuce and is from the guy who makes television shows of considerable artistic import, the pilot is in no hurry to form a specific social critique on the complex nature of objectification; but, make no mistake, there are more than a few hints here that this show is going to be thoughtful about an industry that feeds on and sells exploitation. But really, what we have here is a gorgeously filmed hour-and-a-half-long premiere that takes its time to introduce us to its multitude of colourful players – the hookers, the pimps, the customers, the blue-collar workers, etc – and how they navigate the urban slab of human vice that is 1971 Times Square. Emphasis on human vice: The fetid atmosphere of decay and sleaze permeates the episode. By the last scene, that vague sense of unease becomes all too real during a horribly likely moment of rage and abuse. It's a bleak note to end a pilot on.
Most of the individual stories intersect and parallel in unexpected ways throughout. I'm fascinated to see where all this goes because The Deuce does a fine job of humanising all its characters – even the vicious, detestable ones. A lesser show would make the mistake of believing that the porn industry is in and of itself fascinating and titillating enough to support thin characterisation and easy stereotypes. The Deuce exudes sleaze but it certainly doesn't rely on it as a creative crutch. Director Michelle MacLaren (she of Breaking Bad fame) sets a stylish and intelligent template. The sex and the violence are filmed with a matter-of-factness that doesn't feel exploitative but neither does it come across as weightless. And seemingly every dollar of that astronomical 12 million dollar budget builds a world that's artful in its period-specific authenticity.
It is the increasingly rare kind of high-minded “prestige” TV show where the excellent production quality finds a worthy partner with the lines on the page. The last one where that kind of calibre was consistently demonstrated was in Mad Men. Too early to tell, of course, whether The Deuce will be as good as Mad Men (heck, it was too early to tell whether Mad Men's pilot would be as good as Mad Men at the time), but there's a boundless sense of style and intrigue right from the word go that makes this worth your time to check out.