Business As Usual in The Deuce

thedeuce

“We’re interested in what it means when profit is the primary metric for what we call society. In that sense, this story is intended as neither prurient nor puritan. It’s about a product, and those human beings who created, sold, profited from and suffered with that product.”

David Simon

Early on in The Deuce, Darlene, a young prostitute on 42nd street (where the show gets its name), is assaulted in the hallway outside her apartment. It’s not as it appears, though, exactly: the man is a client, and this was the product he paid for. Darlene complains afterwards that it was too violent this time; her face might start to swell, and her wrist was hurt. The man brushes it off; he was just a little too excited this time, he tells her. He pays her, and she’s cheery once again. Darlene’s pimp, Larry Brown, is peeved; he tells her to make it clear to this man that if it goes too far again, there will be consequences. After all, Darlene makes him his money.

Later on, we meet a second client of Darlene’s, an older man who is quite the opposite of the first – he doesn’t lay a finger on her. The two watch A Tale of Two Cities together – clothed – and the movie moves Darlene to tears. She stays with this client too long, though, all the way until sunrise, and she explains to the man that Larry Brown will probably be angry with her… unless he pays her a little extra this time. He does, though not without an air of disappointment. Larry Brown certainly is angry, but the money pays for his silence this time. He and Darlene get in the car and leave.

In the end, everything in The Deuce is about business.

A couple of pimps discuss prospective new recruits at the airport, women working the street talk business over cigarettes, a bartender realizes that throwing skimpy outfits on his waitresses will bring in more customers to his struggling bar; at no point does The Deuce let you forget that it’s not about the sex, it’s about the money. 

It’s been four years since Treme, and David Simon steps back into the television fold as if no time has passed at all. The Deuce has all the hallmarks you’d expect of a Simon work: the sharp dialogue, the dense setting, the ever-neutral perspective. If not for the sheer improvements in video quality (the HD remaster was a welcome improvement for The Wire), you could have convinced me they filmed this show straight off the set of any of his previous series. The consistency is remarkable, and it helps that Simon’s typical style fits this subject matter like a glove.

As with any Simon production, there are a lot of introductions and plenty of scene-setting to be done, and the pilot picks up the bulk of this responsibility. Despite this, The Deuce isn’t in a hurry to get anywhere, sprawling luxuriously across its 84-minute run-time. I appreciate shows that are willing to just pause for a second, and this one doesn’t shy away from the quiet moments. Michelle MacLaren, best known for her work on Breaking Bad, is here to direct the pilot (and the season finale), and paints a memorable picture of 1970’s era New York. “The Deuce” itself is 42nd Street, one of the notable junctions of Times Square, and as you might guess, it was perhaps the seediest spot in New York in the 20th Century. This show comes to life at night, when the lights and sounds of Times Square and 42nd become its canvas; the visual effects work is excellent, the kind of work that makes you feel as if you could pick out any little detail and get an entire story out of it.

The Deuce tosses you a tangled web of characters from the get-go, and you can feel the invisible hands of Simon and Co. pushing them all on a collision course with one another. It feels lazy to compare The Deuce to The Wire, and perhaps it is, but Simon’s signature is so prominent across both series that it’s almost impossible to avoid. Candy, a prostitute working without a pimp, lectures a young client on how she doesn’t give her product away for free in an economics lesson that would make Stringer Bell proud. The banter between C.C., Larry Brown, Rodney, and Chris at the shoe shining stand would feel right at home on the old couch in the Baltimore projects (and not just because Lawrence Gilliard Jr. was in both places). Vinny Martino is practically Jimmy McNulty reborn, for better and for worse.

This will obviously be a character-driven series, but my biggest concern to this point centers around two of its leads – James Franco and James Franco, playing identical twin brothers Vinny and Frankie Martino. The two only share one scene in the pilot, and it wasn’t quite enough to sell me on the concept. It’s just a little too corny, to the point of being distracting; the camerawork is very deliberate around the two, careful to avoid having both of their faces in frame at the same time. The script makes sure to have Vinny get hit in the face early on so the cut on his forehead can serve as a distinguishing mark (not that Frankie does much in this episode to begin with). I get that Dave Franco is probably not the guy you look at for this kind of show, but the decision to use James twice still feels silly. It’s just immersion-breaking to be thinking about these things in the moment, and it feels a little out-of-character with Simon’s particular brand of hyper-realism. It’s only a pilot, though; perhaps it will pay off later.

“Damaged? Really? What does that mean? Not a fantasy of a perfectly put-together woman? I mean, I think we’re all damaged, you know?”

-Maggie Gyllenhaal

The standout here is undeniably Gyllenhaal, who elevates Eileen “Candy” Merrell beyond what could have been just a simple cliche. Gyllenhaal is also a producer for the series, adding what I believe to be a very necessary feminine influence over her character and the series at large. Candy is a pragmatic businesswoman, a seductive performer, and a loving parent, and Gyllenhaal navigates these dynamic shifts deftly. The gaudy blonde wig she wears feels like her superhero disguise, the character changing fundamentally to an extent when the wig comes off. If anyone from this show is going to have the lasting audience impact of an Omar or a Stringer Bell, it’s going to be Candy.

The feminist message inherent to The Deuce is important, and you don’t need me to tell you it’s one that strongly resonates with the modern day. It’s clear from the outset that this isn’t a stereotypical discussion of sex work, no more than The Wire was a standard crime procedural. The women doing the actual work are justifiably the most interesting characters introduced so far, and responsible for most of my favorite scenes: Darlene with her two clients, Candy and her economics lesson, the group of them conversing over cigarettes. The Deuce wants to present an honest, un-romanticized look at sex as a business and what that business means for its employees.

It obviously remains to be seen how much of an impact The Deuce has. The Wire is pop culture icon to this day, considered by many to be the greatest television drama ever. People who have never seen The Wire know who Stringer Bell and Omar Little are, or have at least seen them in GIFs on Twitter. It was lightning in a bottle, and expecting The Deuce to replicate is perhaps akin to letting the lightning back out and telling the show to catch it again. It could happen, but it’s also an unfair bar to set.

On the flip side, we have Treme; generally considered to be a good show (I’ve not seen it), but one that never quite made the leap into the mainstream. It did well with critics but never backed that up in ratings. As much as I don’t want to call The Deuce the next Wire, I don’t want to call it the next Treme, either. The series will have the benefit, at least for now, of the appealing 9 pm Sunday slot enjoyed by Game of Thrones, and HBO’s content is en vogue right now, affording it some valuable exposure next to shows like Thrones and the up-and-coming Insecure. It’ll have a great shot to get the eyes it needs.

In conclusion, if you couldn’t tell, I believe the first episode of The Deuce is a success. It’s not an hour-and-a-half of edge-of-your-seat television, per se, but it’s thoughtful, immersive and engaging, and I’ll be tuning in this Sunday for the second episode without a doubt. Give this one a shot; we all need something to occupy us in this cold, post-Thrones world, after all, don’t we?

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