“The Deuce,” a new HBO period drama by David Simon (“The Wire”), delivers so much more than what its premise implies. The story ostensibly revolves around the rise of the porn industry in 1971 Manhattan — a plot that reeks of tasteless caricature and formulaic storytelling. Do we really need more stories about Italian mobsters, sex and the ‘70s?
From the super-sized, 84-minute pilot alone, “The Deuce” defies those expectations, displaying the gritty texture and Greek tragedy stylings of a character-driven morality tale. This is not a show about the intricacies of the porn industry per se. It’s a show about the humanity underlying the people who would become involved in such an business, and how financial desperation and social ecosystems lead them to make brash, self-contradictory decisions.
Centered within the show’s version of New York’s seedy underbelly are two identical twin brothers, Vincent and Frankie Martino, both wonderfully played by James Franco (“The Interview”). While Vincent, a down-on-his-luck Brooklyn bartender, is given more screen time during the pilot than Frankie, an elusive gambler, Vincent’s knack for business offers a intriguing set-up for the episodes to come. When it comes to dramas, Franco is somewhat of an unpredictable actor (amazing in “127 Hours,” not so much in “Palo Alto”), and you’d think with a show like “The Deuce,” he would overact the hell out of his characters. Here, however, Franco disappears into the roles of Vincent and Frankie with finesse, distinguishing the two with charismatic ease and subtle dramatic flair.
In addition to Franco’s standout dual performance, the rest of the incredible ensemble cast deserve credit for making the most out of their absorbing characters. There are the ruthless pimps C.C. (Gary Carr, “Downton Abbey”) and Larry Brown (Gbenga Akinnagbe, “Detroit”); the forlorn prostitutes Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal, “Frank”) and Darlene (Dominique Fishback, “Show Me a Hero”); and the ambitious college dropout Abby (Margarita Levieva, “The Blacklist”). Each of them are painted with the same amount of robust complexity and specificity: C.C. and Larry establish their friendship and business acumen through their punchy banter, Candy juggles her occupation with motherhood, Darlene quietly defies her boss and Abby harnesses her independence after deciding the college life isn’t for her. Even the more secondary characters, like new girl in town Lori (Emily Meade, “The Leftovers”) and her competition Ashley (newcomer Jamie Neumann), have some dimensions to them. And as disparate as their storylines are, they seamlessly interconnect with one another throughout the episode.
The theme of independent women being corrupted by abusive men is a prominent — and unfortunately relevant — part of “The Deuce,” especially in the toxic masculinity the male characters exude as they attempt to dominate the female characters. The women, for the most part, are able to subdue their male counterparts through their own agency, such as when Candy explains the limitations of her practice with an overeager teenage customer or when Darlene asks her client to give her an advance for letting her watch “A Tale of Two Cities” with him during their usual session.
Along with its colorful characters, “The Deuce” incorporates impeccable production values and, most importantly, a clear tone, mood and atmosphere. The visuals ooze with steely, cold blues, juxtaposing the darkness of the night scenes with the glowing artifice of Times Square, the show’s setting. There’s an obvious significance to this aesthetic contrast — the darkness embodying the corruption on the streets and in janky hotels versus the brightness and flashiness of the “rich and famous” lifestyle that the characters seek. But it’s shown with such rich astuteness, a clear indication of the brilliant artistry of Simon, cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino (“Ozark”) and director Michelle MacLaren (“Breaking Bad”).
Granted, there’s some confusion during the episode about who’s who and what’s happening, a flaw that can easily be fixed as the story continues. The beauty of non-expository dialogue and situations allows the audience to connect the dots on their own rather than have the writers do it for them. In fact, there isn’t a single mention of the porn industry in the first episode. Instead of resorting to exploitation like it could, or crafting a simplistic, glamorous story for entertainment’s sake, “The Deuce” does its own thing and unapologetically so.