Nobody does television world-building like David Simon. Developed with long-time collaborator George Pelecanos, Simon’s latest extended HBO series, The Deuce (2017-2019), is just as rich, ambitious, and broad-canvassed as its predecessors, tackling a thorny topic: the sex industry, and all the problematic baggage that comes with it. It does so with a gritty, insightful, and surprisingly emotional eye, and while it runs just three seasons, it feels like a much longer show in the best possible way.
Titled after the locals’ nickname for 42nd Street and the surrounding area, The Deuce begins in 1971, with the neighborhood at its grungiest. Obscenity laws are still in effect, but the Deuce is nonetheless a hotbed of prostitution and under-the-counter pornography, a sordid environment only fostered by an extraordinarily corrupt police presence. Sex is about to become a growth industry, however, especially when the New York mafia starts to take an interest in the Deuce’s dirt-cheap real estate. Enter Vincent Martino (James Franco), a hardworking bartender trying to dig out from a dysfunctional marriage, not to mention the enormous gambling debts incurred by his ne’er-do-well twin Frankie (also Franco). Vincent draws the attention of mafia capo Rudy Pipolo (Michael Rispoli) after he revives the faltering Korean restaurant he’s managing with a simple, sleazy gimmick: decking out his attractive waitresses in leotards. Vincent has no love of the mafia, but he’s an easy-talking people person with a knack for turning money pits into functional businesses. Pipolo takes a shine to him, investing in a failed tavern for Vincent to turn around. This becomes the Hi-Hat, a local watering hole that launches Vincent’s career as a successful Times Square entrepreneur. Unfortunately, it also ensnares him as a mafia front, increasingly entangled with their broader criminal activities. The work challenges Vincent’s better nature, while also giving him a front-row seat for the next decade-plus of the neighborhood’s transformation.
The same can be said for Eileen Merrell (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a prostitute working the Deuce’s neon-lit stroll under the working name Candy. Unlike most of the women working the streets, Eileen doesn’t rely on the dubious services of a controlling pimp. She’s an independent-minded pragmatist, who’s made it a point of pride to take care of herself, and has learned to be okay with her choices. But as life on the street grows increasingly dangerous, she eventually starts to seek a path out, which she eventually finds as an adult film actress and director.
While The Deuce largely focuses on these two principal viewpoints, it’s also a David Simon show, which means the protagonists are surrounded by a massive roster of supporting characters who provide glimpses into the world’s many complex corners. Just as The Wire and Treme built out their settings with a keen eye for its institutions and “sub-worlds” — the drug dealers, law enforcement, the music world, the food industry, labor, government, the press, and so on — so does The Deuce. There are the pimps, an entirely (and rightfully) unsympathetic bunch headlined by the truly ruthless C.C. (Gary Carr) and the moderately less awful Larry Brown (Gbenga Akinnagbe), among others. Then there are the sex workers, for whom the show has a realistic ear but also a sympathetic touch; here, the standout character is Lori Madison (Emily Meade), a naive young woman who ultimately rises to fame as a porn actress (a Pyrrhic victory, to be sure). But there are a number of other prostitutes — such as Darlene (Dominique Fishback), Ashley (Jamie Neumann), Melissa (Olivia Luccardi), and Loretta (Sepideh Moafi) — who are trapped by their circumstances and, later, work to extricate themselves. Then, of course, there are the police, represented primarily by Officer Chris Alston (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.), a generally principled cop in a hopelessly corrupt precinct. And of course there’s the mafia (represented by Rispoli, and Daniel Sauli as Rudy’s sketchy lieutenant Tommy Longo), the press (Natalie Paul as ambitious reporter Sandra Washington), and the government (Luke Kirby as Gene Goldman, a Koch administration developer who aims to “clean up” the Deuce by redirecting the money flow from the back alleys to the corporate world). The Deuce excels not just at filling out its setting, but by implying all the depths underneath it.
Where The Deuce really lives, however, is in the interstices, and the places where those worlds intersect. That’s where Eileen and especially Vincent come in: as representatives, navigating the environment’s ethical conundrums, and walking the precarious line of legal, legitimate business and criminal (or perhaps, more accurately, criminalized) work. As with previous projects, Simon molds the material with an even-handed touch, not proselytizing, but ever analyzing. The people on the wrong side of the law can be good and honest, The Deuce suggests, while the people on the right side of it may be dirty as sin. Alston’s foil on the police force, the irredeemable Officer Haddix (Ralph Macchio), is an obvious case in point. The Deuce isn’t interested in the teams so much as the playing field, and how deeply warped and tilted it is. Yet somehow, within that fucked-uppedness, Simon and Pelecanos manage to build out intense, heartfelt emotional connections between the many flawed and floundering characters. Vincent is a product of his time (entitled, opportunistic, casually sleazy) but also ahead of it (generous, loyal, casually open-minded). He doesn’t embrace being a part of Pipolo’s crime family, but his created family — its good people and its bad — are implicitly connected to the criminal influence foisted upon them by their environment. This includes brother-in-law Bobby Dwyer (Chris Bauer), who lands in desperate straits when health problems threaten his livelihood; Paul Hendrickson (Chris Coy), the gay bartender he befriends at the Hi-Hat; Big Mike (Mustafa Shakir), a sketchy local Vincent impulsively hires as a bouncer and ultimately becomes his right-hand man; and Abby Parker (Margarita Levieva), a disillusioned drop-out whose counter-intuitive involvement with Vincent constantly challenges her feminism, even as her friendships with the many abused women of the Deuce inspire her to channel her ill-gotten profits in socially meaningful ways. Within this world, there’s a lot of dicey maneuvering and questionable behavior, but there’s also simple decency, and deep bonds of love and respect between the people. This is true in the other tracks as well, such as in Eileen’s contentious working relationship with cynical pornographer Harvey Wasserman (David Krumholtz), with whom she has an undeniable, winning rapport despite their many artistic and financial disagreements. There’s something refreshing about the melting-pot acceptance the denizens of the Deuce affords each other in between their squabbles: pimps, prostitutes, cops, dealers, mob hoods, pornographers. They all mingle at the Hi-Hat, or at Vinnie’s club, or at the greasy spoon diner where Leon (Anwar Glover) — provided they don’t cross any lines — welcomes everyone equally.
But what about the smut? On this point, your sociopolitical mileage may vary. The Deuce doesn’t just talk about pornography and the sex industry; it depicts it, often graphically. That depiction is usually not sex-positive, either, and that nasty undercurrent can make it as difficult to watch as the violence and abuse of the show. The show chronicles the evolution of the sex industry from street prostitution to massage parlors to escort services, from under-the-counter stag films to peep shows, from porn cinema’s brief flirtation with theater respectability to the relentless churn of home video. But as it charts that history, it also positions itself as a descendant of it, leveraging the tools and freedoms that came out of that era. Since it approaches the subject so unflinchingly, this means there’s considerable ugly male behavior on display, from period-specific, accurate displays of flagrant, sexist entitlement to outright misogyny and shocking physical abuse. As with most HBO shows, there’s a whiff of the obligatory to this exploitation (although, thankfully, it never devolves to the level of Game of Thrones sexposition). It’s certainly committed to being frank about its topic, anyway; it’s not just about the thing, it is the thing. Most of the drama of The Deuce, when you look at it, is generated by society’s unhealthy relationship with sex and unwillingness to cope with it maturely. Would it make sense for the show to critique that atmosphere without actually depicting it? I suspect the show’s explicitness will be polarizing; sometimes it contributes to powerful, profound moments, at others it feels cheap and gratuitous.
Fortunately, it’s not afraid of the conversation. “I’m not going to live my life for someone else’s idea of what’s normal,” Eileen declaims early in season three. “There is no normal. I always say that. Fuck normal! Normal is a lie!” She’s right, yet episodes later, when Abby enlists her to speak to a right-wing anti-porn group about freedom of speech, Eileen’s arguments are met with a vehement, convincing rebuttal (kudos to Marcia DeBonis for powerfully articulating it) that leaves her stunned. “Fuck it,” she tells Abby later. “Maybe I needed to hear some of that shit.” Sure enough, she does hear it, and adapts. The Deuce is problematic, but it also interrogates itself. Evidently Emily Meade, who probably delivers the show’s most consistently uninhibited physical performance, suggested the show have an intimacy coordinator to help the actors handle the work; that suggestion was taken, and I can only imagine it helped with both the actors’ comfort levels and the verisimilitude. Still, in its worst moments, The Deuce goes to harsh, squalid places; some episodes are so visceral it feels like you can contract both lung cancer and chlamydia just by watching them. More than once, dark story decisions are made that are probably appropriate, but also disappointingly expected. Under all that, however, there’s an almost clandestine undercurrent of progressiveness and feminism that steadily grows as the show does: an acknowledgement that this is how things were, not how they should have been.
Perhaps the most stunning aspect of The Deuce, though, is its reach. The show is carefully structured as a trilogy, with season two propelling the series in the late seventies, and season three to the mid-eighties. The credit sequences evolve with the show, from funky Curtis Mayfield (during its more street-focused origins) to the Attractions (as the disco era ramps) to Blondie (as the sex industry shifts away from participation and more toward voyeurism). At times, it’s reminiscent of Boogie Nights, which also slow-builds a sexually charged world before escalating that world to tragic consequences. But The Deuce is a more mature take, and by the time those consequences occur — particularly for Paul during the AIDS epidemic, and for the porn performers whose lives are taken over by their work — there’s a real emotional payoff. There are only 25 episodes altogether, but they’re long, rich, and nuanced, effortlessly gapping time in a manner that suggests more story than is actually onscreen. The structural build is so deft that it’s easy to miss how invested you’ve become in the relationships of minor characters until they’re making you cry. The Deuce’s overall arc is unexpectedly powerful; at the end, it’s clear that Simon and Pelecanos have built, grown, and then dismantled an entire world in a very intentional way. It leads to a sendoff epilogue that is unexpectedly breathtaking.
“I run a bar, where job one is to treat the damned and the damnable alike, with a little dignity,” Abby orates in the penultimate episode, railing at Gene, who is attempting to sell the gentrification of Times Square as a public good. “I might not have done much in the last fourteen years, but I’ve served an honest drink, and I’m not going to stop.” That might well be Simon’s artistic battle cry, and he does it again, here, as well as he ever has.