The Complete First Season (HBO Home Entertainment – 2018)
New York City in the 70s was dirty, sleazy, violent and wild, but it also had a certain throbbing energy that the current Disney-ification of the city has pretty much defanged. Long before sky-high rents and massive chain stores turned the city into the world’s largest mega-mall, New York was America’s dangerous heartbeat; a throbbing, passionate netherworld of crime, music, sex, drugs, gambling, high and low fashion.
The drinks were cheap, and the morals were loose. As a child, several times I walked into the Port Authority men’s room and had strange guys offer me five bucks to see my junk. You could walk down the street and run across a stoned debutante, a traveling salesman, a family on the town and a transvestite hooker, all sharing the mean streets and the experience of being alive in the city that never slept.
The Deuce brings that world back to glorious, sordid life, back in the day when Times Square was still a Hopper painting of seedy bars, porno theaters, cheesy souvenir shops and wary cops.
Officially the first season of The Deuce is about the early days of porno filmmaking – back in the short-lived glory days of the form when X-rated films could actually play in legit theaters; full length smokers with smirky titles like Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones and Naked Came the Stranger.
Yes, the series bumps into that faux-glitzy world in the night, particularly in the last few episodes, but The Deuce is more interested in the sordid underworld that led to that kind of artistic freedom. The Deuce is about the mobsters, the hookers, the pimps, the johns, the gamblers and the stag-movie reel actresses that made these kinds of social changes possible – for better or for worse.
The Deuce never glamorizes the sex it shows. The act is always sordid, cheap and clinical – a business transaction – even when it was not taking place between a hooker and a john.
The Deuce is masterminded by David Simon, a former journalist who has been responsible for some of the most vital television shows of the last generation, including Homicide: Life on the Streets (as far as I’m concerned, pretty much the best dramatic series ever), The Wire, Treme and The Corner. He brought on board some previous associates, like George Pelecanos and novelist/screenwriter Richard Price. (Price returns to the scene of the crime of his great early novels Ladies Man and Bloodbrothers.)
While HBO’s last voyage to Manhattan in the 70s was the strangely unlikable and unrealistic music industry drama Vinyl (all my music journalist friends used to hate watch that odd train wreck of a show), with The Deuce, they have nailed the era and the area. From the buildings to the fashions, the attitudes to the music (Curtis Mayfield’s mega funky “[Don’t Worry] If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go” swings over the opening credits), The Deuce gets it all right.
There is a rather vast and colorful underworld of characters who populate The Deuce – hookers, pimps, gangsters, students, hippies, slimy filmmakers, cops, cons, parents, kids, tourists, perverts, investigative journalists, politicians, alcoholics, drug addicts, the works. Actually, they are not all hanging on The Deuce (which was the nickname for the small area of 42nd Street between Sixth Avenue and Eighth Avenue). The show visits places like the Village, Uptown, The Bowery, Chelsea, Harlem, Brooklyn and Queens.
There are three “main” characters in this vast tapestry of humanity and filth. Two are Vincent and Frankie Marino, twin brothers, both played by James Franco. Frankie is a loose cannon, a massive gambler and way in hock to the mob. Vince is the good son, a hard-working bartender who works two dead-end jobs to pay for his cheating wife and kids. Vince is clean, but he’s a bit of a hustler (on the honest side), and through his marketing smarts he turns a sleepy, almost-empty Chinese restaurant into a huge success. (The marketing strategy mostly comprised of dressing the waitresses skimpily and giving out lots of free booze.)
When the mob sees how well Vince is doing, they start to pressure him to cover Frankie’s nut. Then, when they recognize what a good businessman and how honest he is, they decide to go into business with him, buying him a new bar and keeping a cut of the profits. This leads to new innovations in sex work; peep shows and even a city-sanctioned (sort of) brothel to keep the hookers off the street.
On the other side of the street is Eileen (aka Candy), an aging hooker who hates the life, but does the job through necessity to provide for her young son, who is living with her mom in Queens. Eileen hates the lifestyle. She is the only hooker on the Deuce who refuses to work with a pimp to “keep her safe.” She keeps her independence, but she is more susceptible to being rolled by a john. She is looking for a way out, and it comes in a surprising form – she reluctantly agrees to cover for a fellow hooker who is shooting a porn short. She finds herself surprisingly intrigued with the jobs behind the camera, and starts getting more involved in filmmaking, acting as a way to learn the art and craft of filmmaking.
Their lives run somewhat parallelly through the run of the first season – the Marinos and Candy don’t share the screen until like the sixth or seventh episode, and they never really have any significant interactions with each other. However, the characters and the funky world of the New York streets is always their through line, as the huge cast of characters mingle and interact and bring this swinging, sleazy period of New York to vivid life.
Don’t avoid The Deuce because it sounds too dirty or too decadent. It may be populated by sex workers, but these aren’t just the clichéd dead-end losers of common belief. They are smart, philosophical, pithy, proud, desperate and strong, willing to do whatever it takes to survive their walk on the wild side. The Deuce is HBO’s best underworld series since Boardwalk Empire, maybe even The Sopranos and The Wire.
Perhaps Curtis Mayfield caught the vibe best in his song, which justifiably became the theme to The Deuce. “Sisters. Brothers and the whiteys. Blacks and the crackers. Police and their backers. They’re all political actors. But they don’t know. There can be no show. And if there’s a hell below, we’re all gonna go.”
Yeah, but what a way to go.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2018 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: February 13, 2018.