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
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
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.
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.
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 that 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
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
parallel 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
Jay S. Jacobs
All rights reserved. Posted: February 13,