Critic

Why HBO’s ‘The Deuce’ Is Not Just Another ‘70s Show

The intersection of sex and money in 1970s Times Square makes for must-see TV.

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Eileen, aka Candy, in The Deuce.

Photographer: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

When it rains in The Deuce, the new HBO drama set around 1970s-era Times Square, it’s the prostitutes who are most at risk. The deluge drives away sex-seeking Johns, so the women scurry, their microskirts soaked and mascara running, to look for clients in dive bars that will let them in. Others are driven into darkened theaters, where they work on their knees, rather than their backs, for a fraction of their usual fee. And if they come up short, their pimps will exact a violent retribution.

Sex and microeconomics are not strange bedfellows, but on the seedy section of 42nd Street that gives The Deuce its name, the two are inseparable.

Created by David Simon, the mastermind behind The Wire and Treme, and frequent partner-in-crime George Pelecanos, takes place in the same sordid time and place that Travis Bickle memorably decried in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver: “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”

Thankfully, The Deuce has no interest in washing anything. Draped in polyester, the show—which debuts this Sunday— looks, sounds, and feels straight out of 1971, where it picks up.

As The Wire does with the drug trade, The Deuce explores the sex trade through the various strata of society who converge at Times Square like the subway lines beneath it: a pimp who lavishes favors on a right-off-the-bus new girl in order to motivate his top earner; a less-than-clean cop who becomes entangled with a muckraking journalist eager to expose the role that the police department and politicians play in the prostitution business; a construction foreman who falls into a check cashing scam for the mob and later pimps for them.

James Franco (left and right) plays twin brothers.  
Photographer: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Among these myriad characters, the story is driven by the show’s two recognizable stars, James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Franco, in addition to serving as an executive producer and directing two episodes, plays twin brothers: Frankie, a gambling-addicted ne’er do well, and Vincent, a scrupulous barman whom the mob entrusts with opening a watering hole just off 42nd Street and then, despite his reluctance, several massage parlors that bring Times Square prostitution indoors.

Gyllenhaal is Eileen, a rare, self-employed working girl who goes by the name Candy. Without a pimp—and the protection he provides—she drives home the show’s underlying issues of labor rights, economic empowerment, and feminism that are always bubbling below the surface. Early on she rejects the services of one pimp by saying, “Nobody makes money off my p---y but me.” Later, starring in her first X-rated movie, she becomes enthralled by the lighting and camera angles and aims to become an adult-film auteur as her way off the streets.

Moments like these illustrate a fine-tuned understanding of how the market worked. Instead of prestige TV tropes about how sex sells or that prostitution is dirty business, The Deuce shows the human faces—and human cost—that sparked a revolution and ultimately mushroomed into a multi-billion dollar industry.

The show is draped in the look and feel—and polyester—of 1971.
Photographer: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

It’s easy to forget just how mainstream pornography was in the post-sexual revolution ’70s. When Deep Throat premiered at the World Theater on West 49th Street in 1972, it became a sensation. According to some estimates, it earned $600 million, more than any film of the 1970s, including Star Wars, though the FBI’s figure of $100 million is probably more accurate because the movie, like those in the show, was made with mob money, shown in mafia-backed theaters, and served as a conduit for money laundering.

That’s not the most fraught discovery when you follow the money in The Deuce, where every 25-cent peep show, $1 drink bought from a scantily clad cocktail waitress, and $30 trick (plus $10 for the room) all feed back into to the same pool.

What the show presents is often not very pretty and occasionally harrowing, but it’s always compelling. Despite its many threads and ambitions, the story never drags. Time will tell if its reach exceeds its grasp: Simon and Pelecanos have woven an intricate arc that extends (one hopes) over three seasons, through the advent of the AIDS epidemic and the VHS revolution in the 1980s.

We know where things went after that. Pornography migrated to video and California’s San Fernando Valley, and then, with the internet, back into short loops of pure objectification. Of course, the denizens of The Deuce can’t foresee that. Their futures are, however, foreshadowed right from the title sequence, set to the funktastic Curtis Mayfield song, (Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.

Photographer: Paul Schiraldi/HBO
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