Two James Francos for the price of one

By Ray Rahman
September 10, 2017 at 10:30 PM EDT
Paul Schiraldi/HBO
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Like the great Gwyneth Paltrow in the classic 1998 film Sliding Doors, David Simon knows one thing: If you’re going to have a single actor play a double role, one of those characters has to get a scar on their forehead for clarity.

So in The Deuce’s very first scene, we see our hero Vincent Martino — a hard-working, good-hearted Brooklyn bartender who works both sides of the river to make enough money to feed his family — get mugged. But the scene serves a larger purpose than to just differentiate his face from that of his twin brother Frankie. It also helps set the scene of the world we’re living in — the older, dirtier, grittier, and more lawless New York City of the 1970s, where now-trendy Williamsburg (which is where that bar is actually located) is unsafe after dark.

Like all David Simon projects, The Deuce isn’t just about one person, one neighborhood, one thing, or one place. It’s about the system, man. As such, the pilot introduces a handful of important story lines and characters that don’t really connect in a meaningful way yet, but they obviously will as the series goes forward. Right now, it’s a lot of scene setting. So, until things begin to mesh together a little more, let’s break down the scenery.

The Bar Boys
We already know a little bit about Vincent. But what about Frank? As we quickly learn, Frankie is the sleazier, more degenerate twin. He’s a gambler and a scofflaw, a sort of moral mirror opposite of his brother. Also like his brother, he’s essentially harmless — a little charming, even. In the end, he just wants to have some fun (and maybe make some money while he’s at it).

But his exploits end up pulling his brother into New York’s seedy underworld. Here’s how: One of the bars Vinnie manages is a Korean restaurant in Times Square owned by one Mr. Kim. But as Vinnie says, “No one eats Korean food. Probably not even in Korea, if they can help it!” At the same time, Tommy Longo (Daniel Sauli) from the mob comes to the bar to try to shake down Vinnie for Frankie’s debts, worth around $30,000.

A light bulb goes off in Vinnie’s head: What if he could help his brother and Mr. Kim at the same time? So, he puts the girls at Mr. Kim’s in leotards to bring in more traffic, which, in turn, will bring in more revenue that he can use to pay back Frankie’s mobsters. Plus, now all the street characters and fringe ruffians have a place where they feel welcome to drink and cavort. Everybody wins!

Elsewhere in Vinnie’s life, we find out that his wife Andrea (Zoe Kazan) has been gallivanting around town with other men while he’s been working two jobs to keep the lights on. It leads to a breakup, which, really, is just a necessary plot device: We need Vinnie to be unencumbered and hungry so the he can dive headfirst into what’s to come. (Recap continues on page 2)

The Street Hustlers
C.C. (Gary Carr) jumps out as the main pimp we should focus on. In our first encounter with him, he’s at the Port Authority bus station, looking for a new woman to add to his roster of hookers. He finds one in the form of a straight-off-the-bus, not-so-sweet Midwestern gal named Lori (Emily Meade). When Lori first shows up to the Deuce, the other girls can smell “new” all over her — they tease her a bit but take her in as one of their own.

Method Man plays Rodney, a somewhat persistent but probably good-natured pimp whose main client is a delightful woman named Thunder Thighs (Pernell Walker). It’s early, and Thunder Thighs hasn’t done much yet, but she’s poised to become of one of the most charismatic characters on a show full of them.

Then there’s Darlene (Dominique Fishback), who’s one of Larry’s girls. She’s kind, alarmingly young, and maybe a little gullible, much to Larry’s chagrin. One of her clients is a lonely old man who just pays her to watch classic old black-and-white films. The producers clearly want us to know she’s a deep, sensitive soul. Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe), on the hand, has a bit of a temper, we learn. He’s impatient and quick to raise his voice — something to keep an eye on, perhaps.

But most importantly, there’s Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Candy, who represents something of a rarity in this world: an independent woman of the night. She prefers to skip the “safety” and “security” of having a male pimp as her manager/protector and instead takes care of her own business, for better or for worse. As she says herself, “Nobody makes money off my p—y but me.” Candy’s beholden to no man, and, for the most part, can take of her own, as we see when she’s forced to handle a whiny high-school-age john on his birthday. Her fierce sense of independence is a theme the show will clearly delve into in future episodes.

However, when the pimps-and-hookers story line ends, we learn who the real villain might be: C.C., who at first seemed to be the most suave and gentlemanly of the bunch. Turns out, he’s a bad dude who pulls switchblades on his girls when they don’t work hard enough for his liking. The message is clear: He’s got a dark, even terrifying edge to him.

The Coppers
So far, there’s not too much we learn here, except that Officer Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) is the black one and Officer Flanagan (Don Harvey) is the other one. Flanagan’s a bit of a sleaze but maybe not the worst guy. Alston is a bit friendlier and a little more street smart.

Abby
Finally, we’ve got Abby (Margarita Levieva), who’s kind of a lone wolf. She’s a whip-smart NYU student who finds herself in a spot of trouble when she tries to buy amphetamines off the street but gets busted by the cops. Her trash friends quickly bail on her, leaving her alone to get taken to the station. There, she meets the aforementioned Alston and Flanagan. They treat her lightly and let her go easily because she’s a young, well-off white woman, a privilege that doesn’t seem to be lost on her one bit.

The cop who arrested her, Flanagan, offers to “give her a ride home” — a.k.a. take her out for a drink. And lo and behold, they end up at Mr. Kim’s. And that’s when she meets Vinnie.

The two chat for a bit, and it’s immediately clear there’s a spark. Even the cop can sense it; he takes off and leaves the two of them alone. How far will Abby and Vinnie go? And what does this mainstream rich-kid college student’s entry into the sketchy New York underworld signify? We’ll have to wait until the second episode — The Deuce’s deuce! — to find out.

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  • 09/10/17
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  • In Season
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