Porn. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but try finding someone who hasn’t taken a sip. Over the last almost half-century, the pornographic video industry has risen to become one of the most profitable, if morally dubious, in the world. Reams of websites now allow teenage boys and up to watch hardcore porn for free but back in the day, when the industry was getting started, porn was a commodity and a trove of opportunity.
This is the basis of David Simon & George Pelecanos’ drama, set in the early 1970’s in New York, the birthplace of the porn industry, with a title taken from the nickname for 42nd Street between Seventh Avenue and Eighth Avenue. The Deuce is what you would expect from the man who created, and arguably changed television with, The Wire; detailed, immersive and more than a bit impenetrable.
Characters emerge but honestly, as ever from Simon, its the world he creates which is the most pervasive character of all. Early 70’s New York is sublimely brought to life, a busy, noisy, angry metropolis of bars, cinemas, clubs, strip joints and massage parlours. Simon & Pelecanos, by virtue of their story, are showing us the darker, seedier side on the whole, but we do get glimpses of a more successful world creeping in; take the college professor knocking off one of his students, knowing full well he’s risking everything, as an example of how sex ties into everything. That seems to be a significant message at the core of The Deuce; sex is dangerous, exciting, and powerful, and entire eco-systems can run off it.
Not that The Deuce conventionally sets up such an industry yet. Most pilots would by the end of the eighty-minute running time have all of its players in position for the roles they would assume across the season, but Simon is naturally a cleverer writer. The ‘Pilot’ is all about that immersion mentioned above, letting this New York City and its penchant for all kinds of vices soak into you.
We spend time with the main faces we’ll be following and get an insight into their lives – take James Franco’s down on his heel bartender Vinnie, living with a lazy mother-in-law and stepping out wife (Zoe Kazan) while trying to make bread for his kids and fend off Mob guys looking for his twin brother Frankie (also played by Franco), or Maggie Gyllenhaal’s ageing sex worker Candy, making a living while seeing younger girls rising up ready to take her place.
Porn hasn’t even truly emerged as a reality in the lives of these people its set to change, and Simon & Pelecanos present an eclectic ensemble group of prostitutes, pimps, students, working men and women, cops and many in-between, that make up this developing eco-system which taps into the central tenets of a dying American society.
Porn was inevitably going to rise out of myriad factors at this stage in history; the end of the free love hippy era which had birthed true counter-culture in the young, a nation worn down by the realities of Vietnam, growing distrust in their government (there’s a hilarious line about Nixon early on), and the rise of drug culture on American streets. In a world of vice and moral abdication, why shouldn’t people take advantage of a new American Dream? Sex has always sold.
The Deuce, therefore, is a slow burner. Much of the dialogue is colloquial and period, and as ever with David Simon if you’re not paying attention you’re going to get lost, and the narrative doesn’t conventionally establish through-lines for the season. What it does well is present theme, mood, character and a deep sense you are in a world where darkness and immorality are the norm, and people will have to claw their way out of the gutter.
It won’t be for everyone, much like porn itself, but as a piece of documented history in the making, with impressive production design and a skilled cast, The Deuce could well grow into something special.
The Deuce is airing on Sky Atlantic in the UK on Tuesdays. Have you seen the show? What did you think?