TV Review: David Simon’s ‘The Deuce,’ Starring James Franco

From the creator of "The Wire," HBO's new series starring James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal is a kaleidoscopic, immersive look at the seedy underbelly of New York City in 1971

The Deuce” is gritty — literally. Set in New York City in 1971, the show has a fanatical attention to period detail that is the hallmark of co-creator and co-showrunner David Simon. And the Deuce itself — the section of 42nd Street from Sixth to Eighth Avenues — is, in 1971, a crowded, seedy stretch of adult movie houses, peep shows, dive bars and prostitutes. A layer of grime, so palpable it’s sticky, coats the sidewalks and the cars. When vagrants aren’t peeing in phone booths, less discerning johns and their hired girls are using them for a quick blow job. The whores’ high heels seem not an affectation but a necessity, to maintain at least the illusion of distance from the filth, metaphorical and literal, of the sidewalk. In the pilot, when one of the girls walks home barefoot after a long night in heels, it’s so abject it’s physically repulsive: That is how believable the atmosphere is.

It’s natural to compare “The Deuce” to 2002’s “The Wire,” Simon’s most famous project, which not only was a great cop show but also signified a paradigm shift for premium cable dramas. “The Deuce” is a worthy heir to the sprawling sociopolitics of “The Wire.” Indeed, it’s the closest thing to “The Wire” that Simon has produced in the 15 years since that show debuted — an immersive drama of life in a city, centered on the bleeding edge where crime meets culture. “The Wire” chased the increasingly sophisticated drug trade. “The Deuce,” from Simon and co-creator and co-showrunner George Pelecanos, who worked with him on “The Wire” and “Treme,” follows the barely legal world of sex work, from the streetwalkers and the coin-op peep shows to the filmmakers and mobsters behind the hustling of erotic films to underground audiences.

The problem with “The Deuce” — and this is a familiar problem for viewers who struggled to warm up to the dense worlds of “Treme” and “The Wire” — is that while the environment and themes are seductive, the plot is either irrelevant or seemingly nonexistent. This usually doesn’t feel like a problem. Simon and Pelecanos have a knack for making every detail significant, and by examining the lives of sex workers, pimps, cops and mobsters with equal interest, “The Deuce” tells a wide-ranging story of exploitation, sexuality and gender in a not-so-distant historical era. But it is subtle: It’s four to six episodes in before the arcs become clear. For a show ostensibly about pornography, only one character really explores that world. And even by the end of the first season, it never quite becomes clear why James Franco is playing twins.

Franco is Vinnie Martino, a double-shifting barman, and Frankie Martino, an inveterate gambler perpetually in debt to the mob. The reason he plays both is that apparently, both existed — and in all likelihood, the opportunity to take on two characters appealed to Franco, who inhabits them with a lot of verve. But it’s ironic that in a show so devoted to realism, the fact of mobbed-up twins falling backward into running whores and peddling pornography strikes the most false note.

To Franco’s credit, each Martino is a credibly unique performance, and Vinnie (whom we see much more of) is sympathetic, as much for his failings as for his acts of minor heroism. Vinnie kind of floats through life, but he’s more sensitive than Frankie, and as a result he sees the violence underpinning the trade. It paralyzes him to the point of inaction. In an arresting scene at the end of the pilot, he watches two of his regulars, a pimp and a prostitute, as one cuts the other with a switchblade. He is struck with something between pity and fear but does nothing.

Without fully being able to unpack it, much of “The Deuce’s” interest is in how fear, violence and eroticism run together, both for the johns coming to the Deuce and in the sex workers’ everyday lives. The show is at its absolute best, and most gutting, when it explores the complexity of the relationship between pimp and prostitute — who move between business and abuse and something like love with staggering fluidity.

“The Deuce” implies that pornography — the presentation of an erotic image to an assumed male audience — is an extension of the basic artifice of sex work. It looks at the women from behind the mask they present to their customers, but the mask is part of the story too. That’s why the attempt made by Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) to leave prostitution and move into pornography is the most compelling through line of the piece: From in front of and eventually behind the camera, Candy can use her awareness of the male gaze to make a product of herself and the other women on-screen. (It is satisfying, too, that in a show partly directed by Michelle MacLaren and other women directors, Candy is essentially making the case for diversity behind the camera.) Gyllenhaal has always had remarkable screen presence; as Candy, she has found a role that brings her considerable powers to bear.

“The Deuce” pulls extraordinary performances out of all of its actors: Gary Carr is perfectly snakelike as pimp C.C., and fellow regular Dominique Fishback, as the thoughtful prostitute Darlene, rapidly becomes the show’s emotional core. Even small roles, like Vinnie’s wife, Andrea (Zoe Kazan), and local diner owner Leon (Anwan Glover) are rich players. That’s the thing about Simon: When the story doesn’t quite make sense, the characters still do. All of them, no matter how marginal, feel like human beings at the center of their own life story.

A lot of storytelling is crammed into “The Deuce” — the regular and recurring cast fields nearly 40 characters, and it takes a minute to match rhythm with the cadence of each of their lives. But once you do, it’s a fascinating world: period but not nostalgic, lived in but not superficial. Maybe it has too many moving parts, but all the moving parts are a joy to look at.

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • YouTube logo

    BBC Studios to Explore 'The Edge of Science' for YouTube Originals

    The BBC’s production division, BBC Studios, has won its first YouTube Originals commission, “The Edge of Science.” Starring presenter and science enthusiast Rick Edwards and YouTuber Colin Furze, “The Edge of Science” will carry out a range of stunts and experiments to explore if it’s possible to levitate. The presenters will meet the scientists behind [...]

  • Kirsten Dunst'On Becoming a God in

    Kirsten Dunst Talks 'Little Women,' 'Interview With a Vampire' Reboots

    Kirsten Dunst was just 11 years old when she skyrocketed into stardom as Claudia in “Interview with a Vampire,” but now Dunst says her age is the only thing keeping her from reprising the role in a hypothetical reboot. “I mean I’m too old, right?,” she told Variety at the premiere of “On Becoming a God [...]

  • A Planned Parenthood clinic is seen,

    Variety to Forgo Annual Emmy Party for Donation to Planned Parenthood

    Variety has decided to make a donation to Planned Parenthood in lieu of hosting this year’s annual Emmy Awards nominees party in partnership with Women In Film. The decision comes in response to Planned Parenthood’s Aug. 19 announcement that it will drop funding over the current administration’s “unethical” rule blocking the organization from discussing its [...]

  • Rebel Wilson Isn't It Romantic

    TV News Roundup: Rebel Wilson to Host First Australian Amazon Original Series

    In today’s TV news roundup, the NFL and Pluto TV announce the launch of a new channel, and Rebel Wilson is named as the host of the first Amazon original series to come out of Australia.  CASTING Rebel Wilson is set to host and executive produce the Australian Amazon original series “LOL: Last One Laughing,” the [...]

  • Moffatt Family with the Himba tribe

    U.K.’s Channel 4 Takes British Family to Africa in New Reality Show

    U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 has greenlit new factual entertainment format “The British Tribe Next Door,” which will see a British family spend four weeks with a remote tribe in Namibia. The twist in this format is that, unlike most adventurers, the participants don’t say goodbye to the comforts of their home — instead, they take them with [...]

  • Christian Serratos as Rosita Espinosa - The

    'Walking Dead' Star Christian Serratos in Talks for Selena Series at Netflix

    Christian Serratos is in negotiations to star in the upcoming Netflix series based on the life of Tejano music star Selena Quintanilla, Variety has confirmed with sources. The series was announced back in December and is described as a coming of age story following Selena (Serratos) as her dreams come true and all the heart-wrenching [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content