Monday 20 August 2018

The Deuce review: Riveting new series about 70s New York porn industry serves up a perfect ace

5 stars

James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Deuce
James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Deuce

Pat Stacey

You don’t just sit back and passively absorb a series by David Simon. You sink into it. It’s a fully immersive, 360-degree experience.

There’s no part-time commitment. No half-watching with one eye on your Facebook or Instagram. No missing the occasional episode and then dipping back in again later. It demands all or nothing, and the rewards are more often than not astonishingly rich.

Anything by Simon — The Corner, The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme, Show Me a Hero (the under-appreciated 2015 miniseries that turned real-life local politics and public housing issues in the Yonkers of the 1980s into compelling drama) — sucks you irresistibly into a fully-realised world.

His latest, The Deuce, co-created with regular collaborator George Pelecanos, plunges like a stiletto into the New York of the 1970s, just as the seedy underbelly of the city’s porn trade is about to flip over into a lucrative, legalised industry trading in millions of dollars.

Like Simon’s game-changer The Wire, The Deuce — the title comes from the nickname for 42nd Street (which was the series’ working title) between Seventh and Eighth Avenues — is much more than just a drama about individuals and their knotty lives. It’s a riveting, brilliantly rendered study of a whole complex ecosystem in which everything and everyone is connected to either the sale or acquisition of sex.

Simon and Pelecanos, who co-wrote this 90-minute opener (future instalments last an hour), are in no hurry to cut corners in constructing a dense, stunningly detailed recreation of the grimy New York that those of us who’ve visited the modern, post-gentrification version know only second-hand from 70s movies and TV shows.

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Candy in The Deuce
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Candy in The Deuce

The episode is all about establishing the sprawling cast of pimps, prostitutes, clients, porn stars, cops, Mafia hoods and hustlers we’ll be keeping company with for the next eight Tuesdays and beyond (HBO has already ordered a second season).

Like all of Simon’s work, The Deuce is an ensemble piece, but it’s the first to come preloaded with a couple of stars who are already A-listers. They’re both outstanding.

James Franco plays identical twins Vincent and Frankie Martino. Vincent manages a bar on 42nd Street and strives to live as decent and ethical a life as possible, yet still strays into drug use and infidelity — although not as frequently as his wife, who leaves their two young children with a babysitter every night so she can hit the dive bars.

Frankie, on the other hand, is a scuzzball: an inveterate gambler with the moral compass of a jackal, who’s run up debts all over town, leaving his brother compromised by association and his business plans imperilled.

The twins dress similarly and share the same slicked-back hair and droopy moustache, but Franco so skilfully delineates the subtle differences between them that you never mistake one for the other, even when they’re “sharing” a scene.

Gyllenhaal is Candy, an independent-minded prostitute who operates as a sole trader and doesn’t have a pimp leeching off her. She’s not quite the stereotypical hooker with a heart of gold; it’s not made of granite either, though.

In a grimly funny scene, she agrees to accept as payment a $50 personal cheque from the 18-year-old John she’s just serviced. It was a birthday present from his granny, he explains.

But underneath the curly blonde wig, the barely-there tops, the tiny miniskirts and the knee-high boots, “Candy” is really Eileen, who uses her earnings to take care of her young son, who lives with her mother in a nice suburb far away from the sleazy neon glare of Times Square.

It’s not just Franco and Gyllenhaal who sparkle here. Every single character, major and minor, is vividly drawn and brilliantly portrayed. If there’s an obvious standout among the rest of the cast, however, it’s British actor Gary Carr, who plays flamboyantly-dressed pimp CC, who’s effortlessly charming but also ruthlessly violent.

The Deuce is as unstintingly frank about sex and nudity as you’d expect from a series made by HBO. Unlike in Game of Thrones, though, the usually camera-shy male member makes a few cameo appearances.

Yet the charge of exploitation would never stick. There’s nothing remotely arousing about any of it; it’s as grubby and depressing as the damp-streaked motel rooms where Candy and her colleagues ply their trade.

The Deuce, Sky Atlantic

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