A quick programming note: For the next eight weeks, our regular Monday “Second Glance” and “Bad Movie Night” features will go on hiatus so that we may recap “The Deuce,” the new series from “The Wire” mastermind David Simon and collaborator George Pelecanos.
It says something about the kind of patience David Simon and George Pelecanos have – and expect of their viewers – that the first episode of their series about the ‘70s NYC porn scene doesn’t so much as mention porn. In all fairness, maybe that’s just the angle that HBO chose to push (or that those of us with a keen interest in the subject matter chose to key in on), but it’s still sort of remarkable that the creators of The Deuce elect, in the entire 84 minutes of its pilot episode, to not acknowledge the elephant in the room. Instead, they’re lining up the dominoes of the series, and introducing the ingredients for that scene: the disintegration of Times Square, the business of prostitution there, the mob, crime, drugs, and most of all, desperation.
Our point man for desperation is Vinnie, one of the twins played by James Franco, who begins the pilot episode and is its most constant presence. His first scene, in fact, prompts a kind of “where we goin’ with this?” flavor, with a patient and apparently typical end-of-the-work-day bar scene – disrupted by a robbery attempt during his drop of the receipts. “Please don’t shoot me. For my kids,” he pleads, and we discover he not only has his own money troubles (“I gotta work both sides of the river seven fuckin’ nights a week to feed my fuckin’ family!”) but is being held accountable for the debts of his footloose twin brother, Frankie.
The pilot really stacks the deck for Vinnie, between his money woes, his head injury (which also seems like a handy way, at least early on, for us to tell the difference between Franco’s two characters), his cheating wife, and her near-emasculation of him in a pool hall late in the episode. The purpose is pretty clear; we have to get a sense of a guy who’s running out of options, so we’ll forgive his eventual, inevitable move into pornography (while simultaneously teeing up the sure-to-be-relevant observation that he’s an innovator/entrepreneur). Less clearly painted, but still apparent, are similar motivations for Eileen “Candy” Merrell (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an independent contractor – i.e., no pimp – whose key early scene finds her counting and tallying cash as she listens to her answering machine messages, including one from her mother (“Your son has been asking for you”). It’s worth noting, of course, that not everyone involved in pornography, even in this period, was at their absolute rock bottom; some people liked to have sex, liked to get paid for it, and liked the drugs and the pseudo-celebrity and the life. That often didn’t hold, but it happened.
The closest we get to that, at least in this first episode, is the character of Lori from Minnesota (Emily Meade). We meet her literally coming off the bus, a porn-industry trope if there ever was one; she may as well have a target on her chest. Pimp C.C. (Gary Carr) immediately swoops in and offers her breakfast, but she turns the scene around, making it clear that she knows what he’s doing, and expects it, which somewhat impresses him (“Ain’t no need for the rest of the sales pitch, is there?”). It’s a funny scene, but also a reminder that Simon and Pelecanos know we know these stories, and are thus obliged to occasionally turn them on their heads.
The scene that directly precedes that one also works against expectation, finding C.C. and a fellow procurer talking geopolitics, specifically the president and the current conflict (“Nixon know what he doin’ in Vietnam, bruh. He know the game”). This early duet may reveal the only African-American Nixon supporter besides James Brown, but it’s also the kind of chatty, conversational, colloquial dialogue scene that runs throughout Simon’s work; he loves the sound of people talking on the corner (and all the equivalents of corners, everywhere). People talk shop everywhere on The Deuce: sex workers on the curb, pimps in Leon’s Diner, the mob guys Vinnie is forced to keep the bar open late for. And they often have funny things to say; the subject matter is serious, sometimes depressing, but this is not a joyless dirge, and there’s even the comic highlight of Candy’s encounter with a teenage birthday boy, from his stumble up the stairs behind her to her unsympathetic explanation of why she won’t be altering their agreement to the scene’s uproarious button (“Local bank, right?”).
But the show’s writers, and pilot episode director Michelle McLaren (the all-star behind some of your favorite episodes of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Game of Thrones, and many more), are also keenly aware of the fuses they’re lighting here. There’s no soft-soaping the prostitution, its exploitation and commodification, and the directness of the connection to pornography is present even if the p-word isn’t; witness the delicacy with which that can of worms is cracked open, as Abby (Margarita Levieva), the wise college student, takes in the leotards on Vinnie’s bar hostesses and asks, pointedly, “Ever wonder what it’s like for them to be objectified?” And the episode runs right up on the exploitation of sexual assault that’s dogged other shows (Thrones in particular) by showing an encounter between Darlene (Dominique Fishback) and a man who is later revealed to be a john (“Aw jeez Darlene, you know I’m sorry. You got me goin’ tonight”).
And, of course, all the jokey low comedy between pimps matters little when their true capacity for violence is revealed. In the closing scene, we don’t know what Vinnie’s walking into when he walks down that hall, and it’s scary for both the character and the viewer; the violence he discovers is a reminder that it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt, as well as a worrisome foreshadowing of what could be in store for Lori. Vinnie sees all this – and then he turns around and walks away, and that’s the note it ends on.
A few more random observations:
- You’re starting out five miles ahead of the pack when you secure a Curtis Mayfield song, but nonetheless, this is my new favorite television opening credit sequence.
- I’m assuming this is a first: an HBO show where we see a hard, wet plastic dick before bare breasts. Progress!
- Two great little touches: the rack of clothes hanging across the back seat of C.C.’s car, and that scarf Candy digs out of the drawer to drape over the light for her teenager’s birthday party. We make do with the materials we have on hand.
- Oh, another nice touch: Eileen’s childhood room is covered in posters of Marilyn and Elvis. Sex stars.
- For the record, out-of-towners, the shitty hotels filled with drunks, addicts, and sex workers are one of the few things from circa-1971 Times Square that you can still find there, if you look hard enough (or are booking a hotel online and thus can’t look).
- Franco is really good against himself – the subtle distinctions between the characters separate and clarify them immediately – and as someone whose four-year-old has had the 1961 version of The Parent Trap on a constant loop for the past few weeks, it’s sort of amazing how far the actors-playing-twins technology has come.
- The quiet, late-night vibe of Lori’s backseat scene with C.C., and Darlene’s later return to Larry are sort of indelible; I dig the way this super-sized episode, in its own way, similarly stretches into daytime.
- The exchange between Vinnie and his soon-to-be-ex-wife (Zoe Kazan, great as usual) about Frank Sinatra culminates with a joke about Tony Martin that will land for like five viewers, but hello, I’m one of them.
- Movie buffs will marvel at our first glimpse of New York’s fabled “Deuce,” the block of 42nd between Seventh and Eight Avenue of movie theater after movie theater, most of them merely second run houses at this point in the area’s history, but increasingly shifting to exploitation and adult films over the next couple of decades (before the clean-up of the 1990s). The Conformist and Mondo Trasho are a treat to see on the marquees, and period appropriate, but I dug seeing Get Carter on another – which also appears on a Deuce marquee in the iconic opening credit sequence of the 1971 blaxpoitation classic Shaft. Maybe that’s a coincidence, but if we know one thing about David Simon, it’s that nothing on a show like this is an accident.
Listen to film editor Jason Bailey discuss “The Deuce” every week on “The Deuce Rethread” podcast, via the DVR Podcast Network.