Prestige TV is, in the main, notable for its seriousness of purpose and for its grimness. What’s most exciting about HBO’s new drama The Deuce, available to stream online now and airing Sunday night, may well be its lightness.
Which isn’t to say the series isn’t ambitious. The show—set in early-1970s Times Square and assaying the livelihoods and lives of bartenders, prostitutes, pimps, and cops at a time in which the concept of propriety had long fallen away—would have to get a lot of things right in order to avoid cliché and keep viewers interested. And it does. David Simon and George Pelecanos, frequent collaborators who worked together on HBO’s The Wire and Treme, have conjured up an immersive world that’s completely credible because it doesn’t feel like the history. Characters on The Deuce speak with a brisk frankness that’s often absent elsewhere on TV, and that makes it feel like real life.
The story begins with a pair of twins, both played by James Franco: Vincent is “good” and Frankie is “bad.” This would be facile, if it weren’t for the fact that the good twin isn’t all that good. Vincent ditches his wife in order to immerse himself into making his business a success. And that the bad twin, a gambler, gets tangled up with the mob but also seems equipped to deal with them, fluent in their language of intimidation. (If Franco’s twins are referenced by the show’s title, it’s only a secondary meaning; “the Deuce” is local argot for the seedy stretch of West 42nd Street.)
Franco’s celebrity can be distractingly odd. But his double performance here is virtuosic. He’s matched in intensity and commitment by Maggie Gyllenhaal as Eileen, a prostitute who proudly works without a pimp. No one’s taking a cut, but no one’s protecting her, either, and we gradually learn just how violent her client pool can be. Gyllenhaal, whose sad-eyed melancholy has inspired Hollywood to plug her into some unfulfilling, underwritten parts, goes wildly beyond the tropes of the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold.
A lot of that’s in Gyllenhaal’s performance, showing the tenderness under the carapace of street talk and a wig collection at unexpected moments. And a bit more’s in the story, which plunges Eileen into the heart of the burgeoning movie-making industry that, soon enough, will make a star of Linda Lovelace and an international headline out of Deep Throat. The work that The Deuce brought to mind, over and over through its eight-episode first season, was the film Boogie Nights, which similarly investigates a scene in which shamelessness about sex has become a joyless job requirement. On HBO, conversations between streetwalkers at the corner, in the same tone as water-cooler gossip in an office, tell us all we need to know. Characters are neither liberated nor oppressed by selling themselves; it’s just a decision they made long ago, one supported by a market.
This sort of plainspokenness feels out-of-place in a TV landscape where the operatic morality tales are in vogue. HBO’s last attempt at a period drama, 2016’s Vinyl, placed its characters in Grand Guignol situations and passed judgment on their appetites. Elsewhere on TV, big-in-every-sense dramas like This Is Us and The Handmaid’s Tale strain for striking, provocative moments at the expense of recognizable humanity. Many of these kinds of dramas strive to get our attention by prioritizing lurid outsizedness over character.
But The Deuce never loses sight of the human. And for all the drama of its plot, it consistently and gratifyingly goes small, letting us learn about its characters gradually and in relation to one another. With the same granular dedication to detail that they brought to The Wire, Simon and Pelecanos show us an entire gray-market economy through the eyes of its participants. It’s a triumph, and, better yet, a pleasure.