“The Sopranos” had the Bada Bing strip club.
“Game of Thrones” frequented Littlefinger’s brothel.
And now in “The Deuce,” it’s the peep shows, porn shoots and by-the-hour motel rooms of pre-Giuliani Manhattan.
Though female characters increasingly drive the narratives of premiere HBO series such as “Big Little Lies,” Westworld” and even “GoT,” their employment options are still limited. “Must show skin” appears to be a requisite for the fictional jobs they’re placed in, jobs that have little if nothing to do with advancing the narrative.
Yet in “The Deuce,” the exploitation of women isn’t just a titillating side-story to the plot, it is the plot.
The period drama, which premieres Sunday, explores the rise of the adult film industry out of New York City’s sleazy, 1970s midtown sex trade. It was an era when Broadway playhouses lived next door to XXX theaters, streetwalkers shared sidewalks with gawking tourists and those phone booths on every other corner weren’t just for making phone calls.
But the hookers, hustlers, pimps and mobsters of “The Deuce” want more. They see a potential gold mine in the “blue movie” industry, which is about to explode thanks to improvements in technology (Super 8 film, smaller cameras), less-restrictive legislation and law enforcement hobbled by local politics or their own skewed morals.
Just who will gain power in Manhattan’s relatively powerless underworld, and how they get there, is at the core of “The Deuce.” The neon-lit, “Taxi Driver”-inspired trailers ensure it will arouse, disgust and deliver on ’70s nostalgia, but expectations for the series are much higher than just nominal success via the usual provocation.
“The Deuce” boasts the co-creator dream team of “The Wire” creator David Simon and frequent collaborator author-producer George Pelecanos who worked on both “Treme” and “The Wire.” They made that bleak story of Baltimore’s drug trade into a powerhouse drama that, 15 years after its debut, is still the gold standard for smart, episodic, premium cable series.
Though television has fractured into a billion and five more platforms, and bad guys and gals are now explored in far more interesting ways than they were when “The Wire” arrived, “The Deuce” has the potential to be HBO’s next great original series.
Where the show might succeed on the constant threat of violence, explicit sex scenes and retro-glory alone (pimped out Lincoln Continentals, Winston cigarette ads, suede miniskirts), it’s the intricate storytelling based in areas most people would rather avoid, a stellar cast and context, context, context that makes “The Deuce” so much more than its naked body parts.
Twin brothers Vincent and Frankie (both played by the charismatically greasy James Franco) operate a bar in the dicey area around Times Square known as the Deuce. One is a likable, street-savvy hard worker, the other a grifting gambler. They both become tangled up with the mob.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is Candy, a seasoned prostitute who sees the potential of higher returns in the pornography business. She has a son and mother to support, and is tired of waiting for her next job in the pouring rain, or plying her trade in the dark recesses of a rat-infested, adult movie theater. The hardworking and young Darlene (Dominique Fishback) walks the same streets and drinks in the same bars as Candy and their colleagues/competition. The women traveled different paths to the bottom rungs of society, but share a common theme of nowhere else to turn.
An assortment of pimps who include Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe), Rodney (Cliff “Method Man” Smith) and C.C. (a hot and cold character that stands out due to the talent of Gary Carr) run the streets, or at least the women working those streets, with a combination of sick love and fear. The Greyhound station is where they look for “new product” – e.g. Midwestern arrival Lori (Emily Meade) – while discussing the power structure of the Nixon administration. The argument whether their shoes are truly Italian or from the local Thom McAn’s is a conversation best saved for the shoe-shine kiosk on 42nd.
NYPD officers Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) and Flanagan (Don Harvey) work the area, but corruption from up high has trickled down to the beat cops, and enforcing law with any sort of consistency is about as likely as equal pay for women in 1971 (or 2017, for that matter).
The camaraderie portrayed in another production about the early days of the porn business, “Boogie Nights,” is also evident in “The Deuce” but it’s interspersed with much more treachery given the dilapidated world of ’70s NYC. You’ve never seen so much flattened chewing gum on a sidewalk, so much smoke stain on a motel curtain or rampant drug use out in the open.
But, amazingly, it all serves the story, and because of that, isn’t as gratuitous and exploitative as the gratuitous and exploitative world it depicts. It helps that the pilot and many more episodes are directed by women, including “Breaking Bad’s” Michelle MacLaren. She is a master at making a character’s hidden motivation, history or desire the focal point, rather than the heinous or questionable act they find themselves drawn to.
When women of “The Deuce” turn tricks or “perform” in front of the camera, it’s a function of their job, and often feels no more sexy or evocative than other scenes in which a student works a dull, telemarketing job selling health supplements.
Their get-ups are hardly sexy TV fare – grandma underwear lines show through their tight hot pants, and the polyester seams of halter tops pucker around imperfect waistlines.
There are a lot of characters here, and subplots, and stories that have yet to converge. Season 1 is just the setup, where you’re introduced to mobsters who hope to develop property in the area, a journalist who wants to write an expose on the whys and hows of prostitution, a gay bartender who lived through the Stonewall riots and is seeking a safe harbor, and the aforementioned student whose story still makes no sense. She’s smart, empowered, but hangs out at a bar with pimps and call girls. Patience.
But none so far follow a predictable stereotype, especially Franco’s twin brother characters. He convincingly plays them both, often in the same scene. When a mobster sees them together for the first time, he remarks: “What is this, the … Patty Duke show?”
Humor is always a plus, even in “The Deuce,” where it seems there’s little to laugh about.
But it’s a series full of surprises and original takes, even if its women have to walk that oft-tread path of many HBO shows before them.
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)