The Deuce – Season 1 – Life on 42nd Street by Cal Byrne
Creators: George Pelecanos, David Simon
Stars: Kevin Breznahan, James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Watching television is supposed to be a one-way process. You sit; it glares. You listen; it speaks. But increasingly TV is starting to ask for some things in return. It’s asking you to feel a certain way; to react a certain way. There are no ambiguities about its suggestions. Cry here; laugh over there; allow yourself to be distracted by your phone now. Increasingly, we are becoming emotionally beholden to that big daddy of screens on the wall.
And while suggestion is certainly nice, there’s always something to be said for a bit of good old fashioned emotional autonomy. Co-creators David Simon and George Pelecanos understood this when making The Deuce. They didn’t want to make a show about the sex industry that asked you to feel sorry for the prostitutes and loathe the pimps. They wanted to make a show about the sex industry that let you to decide how to feel for yourself.
Like much of their earlier work – The Wire, Treme – it is ostensibly about a single issue but in reality covers a much larger spectrum of problems. Whereas The Wire shone a light on the drug trade in Baltimore of the 1990s, The Deuce turns its attention on New York of the 1970s and the nascent porn industry around Time Square. James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal play the co-leads. Franco takes on both Vincent and Frankie Martino: twin brothers who open up a series of businesses with the mob. Gyllenhaal plays Candy: a fiercely independent prostitute who begins to direct porn as a means of getting off the streets.
David Simon’s journalistic background is evident throughout this first season as he not only seeks to tackle prostitution but the issues that allow it to flourish: police collusion, journalistic incompetence and a general societal ambivalence. There is the straight-laced cop trying to navigate his way through a sea of corruption, the frustrated reporter struggling to get to the issues by a disinterested editor and the idealistic college dropout coming to terms with the harshness of reality around her.
Here, The Deuce can start to feel a bit formulaic. The longer the season progresses the more you feel like you’ve met these characters before. But this is a show about time and place more than it is about character. And it’s in this that this series excels.
The New York of 1971 is brought beautifully to life by the painstaking attention of its creators. Simon and Pelicanos said they wanted The Deuce to feel like a movie unearthed from the early 70s rather than a period piece made by a studio in 2017. This intention pays dividends. The lives of those on 42nd street – colloquially known as ‘The Deuce’ – are intricately woven in a series of meeting bars, cafes but their stories are largely secondary to that of the City itself.
HBO have already confirmed The Deuce for a second season rewarding Simon and Pelicanos for their work. The drama of the series is set to ramp up as we are taken into the late 70s and 1980s when crack and AIDs are added to list of problems already facing New York. How Simon and Pelicanos will handle the jump will be interesting but if it’s treated with the same care as this first season then it’s likely to be another resounding success.