The Bad Old Days of Times Square
The Deuce Review
David Simon has been the Golden Age of TV’s social conscience, and he was at his best when the city of Baltimore acted as his muse: in Homicide, he demonstrated the messiness of the police infrastructure, and in his crown jewel The Wire, he used a police investigation to demonstrate the failures of the War on Drugs, the end of the working class, and the end of the American Dream. When he tried to do to New Orleans in Treme what he did for Baltimore, he mostly failed: much of what the series was about seemed to be a reassembling of Simon’s former actors and writers with no underlying message.
Simon has since regrouped by looking backwards: in Show Me A Hero, he took the real life story of 1970s public housing battles in Yonkers, and told a stunning story about race relations. Now, in his most recent work, The Deuce, one could make the argument that this something of a reassembly project as well — he’s working again with frequent collaborators Richard Price and George Pelecanos, and has chosen 1971 New York as his canvas. But there is something far more inventive and imaginative here — and not just, for the first time in his HBO career, he has name actors involved in the project.
Ostensibly, the lead of The Deuce is James Franco, who is cast in a dual role as Frank and Vincent, twin brothers trying to find a living in the darkened district of NYC. Frank is the more working class brother, trying to survive as a bartender; Vincent is a gambler who has managed to work up debts throughout the five boroughs. Frank is now trying to pay off Vincent’s debts, and somehow find a life for himself, which has led to him getting involved with the mob in operating a bar of his own in Times Square.
Franco is very good, reminding us that before he went off the deep end in too many independent projects, he was actually a decent actor. But he is no more the lead in The Deuce than Jimmy McNulty was in The Wire. The main story being told is a level that Simon and his group mostly stayed away from: prostitution. The series is about the interlocking relationships between whores and their pimps. There is the possibility of heading into the same kind of clichés that Robert Townsend once satirized in Hollywood Shuffle — many of the pimps are African American. But Simon is much too subtle a hand to draw so darkly. One of the more encouraging stories in between a pimp and a woman from Minnesota named Arlene. There’s clearly a game of seduction here, but Arlene is no wide eyed innocent. Indeed, much of the work between involves some of the best stories about the relationship of pimps and prostitutes since the other golden age drama, Deadwood. (They even gather together at dawn in the same restaurant, relaxing from the nights work)
There are a lot of good actors in this series, some of whom are playing from earlier tropes. Lawrence Gilliard, Jr. , the doomed D’Angelo in The Wire, now plays a policeman who can’t understand why New York is changing so many of its approaches to crimes. Chris Bauer plays a cousin of Frank and Vincent in construction, and one could definitely see an earlier version of Frank Sobotka here. And Michael Rispoli, the first choice to play Tony Soprano, plays a mobster in a real attempt to go legit, though choosing a Lindsay for President campaign probably isn’t his best move. But by far, the biggest treat for this series is Maggie Gyllenhaal as Candy, a prostitute determined to make a career without a man.
Gyllenhaal has always been one of the most brilliant actresses in the independent film circle, but its only since she turned to TV that she has found her medium. Candy is a woman who has turned her son over to her mother, and is determined not to be stuck in the world forever. She then moves slowly into the industry of adult entertainment, and is now moving into the ultimate subject of the series — the birth of the pornographic film trade. Gyllenhaal is unlike almost every prostitute portrayed in any media, and this may be the role of a lifetime for her.
The Deuce isn’t a perfect show, yet. There are still too many characters that haven’t paid off yet — there’s a college dropout whose role in the series is still unclear, as well as journalist trying to get stories on prostitutes that’s dangling. But for the first time in awhile, I feel that Simon and staff are involved in a project that is both socially relevant and brilliantly entertaining. (They’ll also have more time to unfold their narrative: The Deuce was recently renewed for its second season.) The fact that I, as a New Yorker, know the ultimate fate of everybody involved in this trade doesn’t change anything. Capitalism triumphing overall is a common message of Simon’s. That doesn’t mean it won’t be fun to get there. Maybe Simon will finally have a project that the Emmys can’t ignore for once.
My score: 4.5 stars.