These days, New York City's Times Square is clean, shiny, and safe. It's a Mecca for tourists and families and a fun stop for anyone looking to see the sites of The Big Apple. It wasn’t always like that. In the 1970s and '80s, it was a hot bed of sex, drugs, and crime. HBO’s new series The Deuce tells the story of that Times Square.
Created by David Simon and George Pelecanos, The Duece has a lot in common with another of their shows, The Wire. That series, arguably the greatest show ever, used various institutions (the drug trade, the police, the schools, politics, and newspapers) in the city of Baltimore as a way to look at how the American capitalist structure uses those institutions to slowly destroy the working class. While it was cynical about larger organizations, it always took a humanistic look at its characters.
The Deuce similarly takes a journalistic approach to life in and around Times Square circa the early '70s. It's about pimps and prostitutes, cops and the mob, porno films, sex shops, and money. It's about how everyone hustles everyone just to get by. How the bad guys aren’t always bad and the good guys often do more harm than the bad. It drags its feet though the dirty streets, but treats its people with respect.
It's populated by fascinating characters that you’ll love to hate, hate to love, and who will inevitably let you down and break your heart. Just like real people in real life. Vince (James Franco) is basically a good guy who is working two bar jobs to support his ever-cheating wife Andrea (Zoe Kazan) and their kids. His degenerate twin brother (also James Franco) is up to his ears in gambling debts. When Vince agrees to pay back those debts to Gambino capo Rudy Piplio (Michael Rispoli), the mob gives him respect and an opportunity to run his own bar, the Hi-Hat.
The bar becomes kind of a hub for the various other characters in the show. There’s the upper-middle class NYU student who quits school to slum it at the bar and form a romantic entanglement with Vince. The bartender who brings in the LGBT crowd, and the pimps and prostitutes come in off the streets for a round or two. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Eileen, or Candy as she’s known on the street, a prostitute working without a pimp who wants to get off the streets but doesn’t know how. She’ll eventually find her way into the porno business, fighting her way from performer to set designer to director while striking up a friendship with a porn mogul who helps her out.
The entirety of the cast is remarkable. Franco initially got all the attention and he’s great playing twin brothers who are identical yet distinctly different. But it is Maggie Gyllenhaal who is the living, breathing heart of the show. She gives a daring, moving, bravado performance. An actress of her stature could have easily pushed back against the nudity and graphic sexuality of her character, but she just completely goes for it and in doing so steals the show.
It is a graphic, explicit show. There are more naked penises in The Deuce than all of cable TV put together over the last decade. It’s as if David Simon heard the complaints about shows like Game of Thrones and their gratuitous female nudity and yet complete lack of male genitalia and said “you guys want to see dicks? I’ll give you some dicks.” These depictions of the dirty city, the grungy sex and violence can be a bit tiring episode after episode. One of the things that made The Wire such a great series was its ability to bring levity to its cynicism. The Deuce has some light moments but they are so often tempered by such pitch blackness it is sometimes hard to watch even while recognizing just how good it is.
Like The Wire, it is a dense, intense, incredibly crafted show that will no doubt reward multiple viewings. But it's such a difficult one to watch I’m not sure how many people will really be able to watch it again. I’m going to need to binge watch Parks and Recreation again to cleanse my palette before season two.
Extras include audio commentary from David Simon, George Pelecanos, producer Nina Kostroff Noble, director Michele MacLaren, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and James Franco on the pilot episode and finale. Each episode also comes with a very short, talking-head feature about that particular episode. Two other longer features are included, the first is about the making of the show and the second involves the real history of the rise of the porn industry in New York the shows fictionally depicts.