HBO’s The Deuce is an unflinching look at the birth of the modern U.S. porn industry from the seedy Times Square neighborhood. George Pelecanos and David Simon, two of the minds behind The Wire, and co-producer and lead actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, have teamed up to recreate the world of street corners, night clubs, dirty bookstores and massage parlors.
As with The Wire, The Deuce has managed to create memorable and likable characters that bring lightness to what is a dark and disturbing corner of the world. At the center of the story are twin brothers Vincent and Frankie (played by James Franco), independent prostitute Candy (Gyllenhaal), a handful of pimps, like Reggie (Tariq Trotter), beat cop Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), and mid-level mob boss Rudy (Michael Rispoli).
Every episode is punctuated by funny banter.
When Vincent says he saw Jerry Van Dyke in public, Frankie tops him by saying he saw Dick Van Dyke about to bust out with “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” Name dropping 1971-style has never been better.
Despite the laughs, the tough circumstances facing the women selling sex on street corners is never far behind. Yet, even those scenes can surprise us. We squirm as Candy performs graphic oral sex on a teenage boy, and then he wonders why has to pay the same amount as men who last a lot longer. When she finds out his father sells cars, she asks if he sells the cars cheaper to customers who take less time to make their decision.
In other words, the characters are smart, the dialogue well written, and the performances winning.
Beyond that, we soon realize that we’re getting a glimpse at the moment that big changes in sex work and pornography were set in motion. Sex on screen would no longer be the exclusive domain of the low-budget peep films at the back of the dirty bookstore. The producers and writers bring us into the world of prostitutes, pimps and their abusive relationships, but then asks viewers to consider which of the options facing these women is better. One prostitute considers that having sex in a film—that’s forever.
The show goes to great lengths to reproduce 1971 Times Square in every gritty detail.
From the open bags of trash strewn across the sidewalk to the marquees with questionable movie titles to the smoke-filled nightclub with its ringing cash register and ashtrays overflowing. And just when we think we’ve visited every grimy corner of this world, we realize there’s a basement in the suburbs where they’re making porno movies with a 16mm camera.
The Deuce isn’t for all tastes, but the creators have taken pains not to create pornography in their attempts to make a story about prostitution and pornography. Rarely titillating, it instead focuses on the workaday lives of people involved. And for those willing to go along with the ups and the downs of the characters, it pays off.
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