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The Deuce - First episode review

The Deuce

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

DAVID Simon and George Pelecanos are two of the most urgent writers in TV history, off the back of their acclaimed TV hits The Wire, Treme and Generation Kill.

They look set to continue their hot streak with The Deuce, a semi-fictional drama that charts the origins of the porn and sex industry in the heart of New York’s Times Square during the ’70s.

True, the opening episode was sometimes painful to watch – sleazy, occasionally vicious and shot through with awkward and/or uncomfortable moments.

But this was in keeping with the era itself, which is brilliantly recreated. And the duo’s knack for writing fascinating, emotionally complex characters remains intact. The ensemble cast may be large but almost everyone had enough to do to make viewers want to find out more about them, if not necessarily rooting for many of them.

Primarily, there’s James Franco’s Vincent, a hard-working barman and father looking to make ends meet and gain an edge that will make him more money. He’s the closest The Deuce gets to delivering a good guy – albeit one with a roving eye.

His twin brother Frankie, also played by Franco, is more reckless, owing money to half of New York and always peddling a new scam or idea. So far, though, his on-screen time has been limited, with his reputation preceding him (especially since Vince has been tasked with picking up Frankie’s tabs).

On the street side of things is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s independent hooker Candy, a mother trying to keep her own counsel, who steadfastly refuses to be taken on by a pimp – “nobody makes money off my pussy but me”, she eloquently puts it. A tough cookie, Candy does have a softer, more vulnerable side to her, albeit one that is only fleetingly visited in a brief visit to her daughter, or a scene in her hotel room counting money.

Other cast members extend to pimps, hookers and cops, with Gary Carr’s CC arguably the pick of the bunch so far – a smooth-talking, sharply dressed pimp whose introduction saw him charming the pants, almost literally, off of another potential mark (Emily Meade). He seems, early on, like another good guy: that rare thing, a pimp with a heart. But as the episode draws to a close, he is the archetypal bad guy… holding one of his women at knifepoint, and even cutting her, to persuade her to continue working, even in the pouring rain.

Admittedly, some of what takes place in The Deuce is highly expected, right down to CC turning on the terror in those final moments. And there is the shock value we’ve long come to expect from most high-profile HBO shows, with naked men and women flaunting their all with increasing regularity.

But while the lack of many, if any, sympathetic characters feels like a potential problem, and the sexual content feels sometimes there for the sake of it, there’s still so much to admire in The Deuce that – for now – it’s easy to overlook those shortcomings and excesses.

The cast is uniformly excellent and the script is far more intelligent than it is overtly provocative. Simon and Pelecanos have a lot to say about America, both from a historical perspective and a current one. Their look into the past feeds into the present and, arguably, looks to inform the future (for those willing to pay attention).

Why else would two pimps be talking about Nixon and his attitude to nuclear weapons if not to shine a light on Donald Trump and his current war of words with North Korea? Why, too, are there candid discussions about the objectification of women, which continues to be a part of today’s rhetoric?

How has the porn industry helped to shape male attitudes to women? How has the sex trade been allowed to grow? These are all questions that you feel Simon and Pelecanos are posing, if not necessarily answering.

And they’re also great, too, at tapping into human frailty and shortcoming. The fact that almost every character is flawed, some irredeemably so, shows a deeper appreciation of the human condition than a lot of more artificial TV series. Hence, while we may not necessarily like or agree with many of the actions of its players, they make for riveting viewing.

And the direction is deliberately sleazy, as opposed to sexy. The sex scenes, of which there were a few in this opening episode, weren’t designed to titillate. They are clearly designed to offer an expose of the harsh reality of life in the sex industry for those seeking to navigate and survive its many perils.

If this makes for uncomfortable viewing, then that’s probably the point too. Hence, while The Deuce may sometimes feel like a difficult journey, especially when focusing on its female victims, it never feels exploitative. Rather, it’s another essential journey that Simon and Pelecanos are inviting us to go on.

The Deuce is on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday nights from 10pm.