Creators: George Pelecanos, David Simon
Starring: James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Carr, Dominique Fishback
A review by Michael Walls-Kelly
After having a hand in the creation of shows like The Wire, Homicide: Life on the Street, Generation Kill, and Treme, I’m automatically going to check out anything David Simon does. If Simon’s paired up with collaborators like director Michelle MacLaren and writers George Pelecanos and Richard Price behind the scenes, I expected big things from this show.
The Deuce impressively blew those expectations out of the water. This series is the best thing Simon has created since Generation Kill. It’s almost on par with the first season of The Wire.
The Deuce is a sprawling look at a multitude of characters and an examination of a very particular time and place. The series deals with the various vice trades in and around Manhattan’s infamous 42nd Street (the titular “Deuce”), from bars to drugs to prostitution. The characters we meet and get to know over the season’s eight episodes include sex workers, pimps, bartenders, police officers, and mobsters.
The first episode, which aired last night on HBO, introduces us to this world from the perspective of a few characters. Vincent Martino (James Franco) is a bartender working two jobs trying to support his family and pay off his brother’s (also Franco) gambling debts. A bartender is a pretty perfect point of focus for a series like this. The bar Vincent runs make for a perfect intersection point between all the characters. It’s never weird to see police officers having a drink a few stools down from a pimp. It just makes sense.
Franco does very fine work as Vincent. He’s smart and open-minded while staying true to the times. As a character, Frankie is slightly one-note. We get to spend a little more time with him in later episodes with the more subtle differences between the brothers start to stand out. The show takes pity on us in the first episode and gives Vincent a head wound to help us tell the brothers apart. It’s a testament to Franco that that’s unnecessary in the rest of the season.
The other big name cast member is Maggie Gyllenhaal as Candy, an independent sex worker who eschews having a pimp. Gyllenhaal is outstanding in a role that could have come off as tired or cliche. Her physicality is impressive. We feel it every time she’s strong and in command. Also, every time the world chips a little more of her pride away. Candy is also our main entry point to the main storyline of the first season. On the spectrum of meandering storylines that runs from The Wire to Treme, The Deuce is definitely closer to The Wire. There is a feeling of forward momentum, of something building. Of course, it’s still a David Simon show. The main thrust of the series doesn’t kick in until over halfway through the seasons.
That doesn’t matter when we’re spending time with very honest and entertaining characters. We follow the exploits of an NYPD patrolman (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.), a gay bartender (Chris Coy), a college drop-out (Margarita Levieva), a porn director (David Krumholtz), and many, many more.
The first season offered two big acting standouts for me. Gary Carr is someone I’d never heard of, but his work as C.C., one of the pimps, blew me away instantly. He makes a big impression in the premiere. He’s charming, slimy, terrifying and funny without any of those traits feeling disparate or cartoonish. It’s an intense performance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up seeing a lot more of Carr.
The other performance I loved was Dominique Fishback as Darlene. She’s a young sex worker, both sweet and smart, who has a regular that pays her to eat pizza and watch old movies with him. The role isn’t the flashiest in the series, but Fishback more than holds her own in scenes opposite Gbenga Akinnagbe as her pimp or Gyllenhall or Levieva. Darlene’s storyline ended up being the one I was invested in the most. Which, is an impressive feat for a series with as many compelling storylines like this one.
The work behind the camera is, of course, top-notch too. The writing is exactly what you’d expect from a show created by Simon and Pelecanos. It’s sharp, witty and naturalistic. Every character feels real and lived in. The camera work is beautiful without being showy at all. MacLaren directs the premiere and the finale (Franco gets behind the lens for a couple of entries as well), and she brings a very matter-of-fact style to the show. The sex in the series is shot in the same way as cops filling out paperwork or bartenders pouring drinks. They’re all just people working their jobs and living their lives on the Deuce.
Verdict: Watch this show! My one complaint about the series is that I’ll have to wait more than a year to see any new episodes.The Deuce has all the strengths of a David Simon series while also being surprisingly fun. When a character basically invents a peep show booth it’s treated like the invention of the light bulb. There’s a sense of everything changing in these people’s lives that propels the series forward. Overall, it’s just a fantastic setting and era for a series. One that I hope to spend a lot more time in.