HBO’S The Deuce is a period drama about the golden days of glory holes and the big bang of porn. It’s set in the early 1970s, when Nixon was screwing the nation and 42nd Street in New York City, a.k.a. “the Deuce,” was America’s most notorious sexual supermarket — a glitzy-scuzzy underworld of prostitutes, drug dealers, and peep shows. In these eight hours, you’ll witness desperate phone-booth quickies, sad fleabag-hotel rutting, and disturbing predatory misogyny, presented with mechanical dullness, matter-of-fact nudity, and close attention to every scummy detail. Oh, baby! Betcha can’t wait to get in bed with this show, right? And yet, while it may not be date-night TV, The Deuce is an absorbing, resonant chronicle about the evolution of dehumanizing skin trades and the mainstreaming of adult entertainment.
The minds behind the series are far from dirty. David Simon (The Wire) is skilled at illuminating the structures of society and showing how they work for and against people. He’s made The Deuce with novelist and frequent collaborator George Pelecanos and director Michelle MacLaren, who’ve conjured a slightly heightened simulacrum of Times Square circa 1971. It’s a tapestry of interweaving arcs with sharply drawn characters — hookers, pimps, gangsters, cops, journalists — steeped in the changing sexual attitudes and mores of class, race, and gender.
James Franco provides a two-headed center, playing twins with impressive dexterity. Vince is a bar manager stuck in a bad marriage who has a soft spot for the misfits of the Deuce, including brother Frankie, a fallen sports star and gambling addict. The siblings aren’t warring rivals; Vince loves his brother, even when he shouldn’t. Franco’s ability to generate chemistry with himself is meta-fun to watch, but the entertaining rapport is meaningfully insidious, too, as it nurtures the show’s interest in enabling parasitic relationships. When mobsters pressure Vince to pay Frankie’s debts, Vince succeeds with a savvy scheme that gets rewarded with a chance to rehab a derelict watering hole. When the High Hat then explodes into a hot spot, Vince’s gangster patrons hand him another opportunity that tests his character: launching a newfangled adult arcade/sex club.
As Vince slides from empowerment to exploitation, Maggie Gyllenhaal drives a parallel story with a terrific performance as Candy, a pimp-less streetwalker — all-business and dead inside. In a poignant subplot, an attempt at real romance takes the measure of what her profession has done to her capacity for intimacy. But a cheapo porno gig (Vikings and soup are involved) reignites dormant showbiz dreams and spurs her to become an ambitious, even redemptive player in a nascent industry on the cusp of a breakout: Deep Throat looms.
The Deuce plays to the story lines of history, making for a layered, ironic experience. We know what becomes of the Golden Age of Porn, we know Times Square is now the epicenter of a media-saturated society, and the show — which fixates on film as art, escapism, and crass content — knows this too. The Deuce is a clear-eyed tragicomic drama about sex workers and social change in the ’70s. But like Mad Men and Halt and Catch Fire, it’s an origin story for the present that asks us to consider the culture we want moving forward. A