The Deuce: Series Premiere Review

How do you define pleasure? It’s a question likely to be at the heart of HBO’s newest entry into the network’s already uber-impressive original series lineup. The Deuce, created by George Pelecanos and David Simon, who you will remember as the forces behind The Wire and Treme, officially premieres on September 10th. In advance of the debut, the network chose to release the 87 minute feature-length pilot episode this past weekend.

It’s an interesting strategy, and usually it’s done to build interest and generate advanced hype. Sometimes it works, and occasionally it doesn’t. Years ago, AMC released the Halt and Catch Fire series premiere over a week early via YouTube and the network’s website. Many people watched, but because that show wasn’t exactly ready for prime time out of the gate, much of that audience never returned.

However, if you believe in a property, especially in this peak TV marketplace where every eyeball is at a premium, and the competition is everywhere for the entertainment dollar, it’s a smart play. For HBO, the bet is this. You’re going to watch The Deuce now, or at least there’s a better chance you’ll give it a shot now than you will in two weeks, when it’s pushed against Sunday Night Football. The key for a network or a showrunner then becomes one simple calculation.

Is our effort any good?

The answer, following the pilot, is most likely yes. It’s difficult to judge any creative entity this early, but the first episode brought with it multiple characters we instantly care about, and a 1971 New York City that looks like a cross between The Wire‘s Baltimore and a Martin Scorsese big budget motion picture. Make no mistake, The Deuce is dark, dreary, and ugly, but it’s already painting an extremely intriguing portrait of excess, survival, and desire.

In similar fashion to Boardwalk Empire, The Deuce brings with it a pair of marketable, A-list stars in James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal. That’s the jumping off point, and it’s going to attract a different brand of audience. We cared about Nucky Thompson because we know how good Steve Buscemi is in virtually every performance we’ve ever seen him in, and we added Terence Winter and Scorsese to that mix and it was gold. I would argue Boardwalk never lived up to being the show I thought it might be, but that was an awfully high bar to clear.

The Deuce is in uncharted territory, because although we’ve seen period pieces like The Americans, Mad Men, and Stranger Things speak to us in nostalgic, rustic ways that take us back to a simpler time, we’ve never seen a show with a backdrop of pornography, prostitution, and the most carnal of pleasures. It gives Simon and Pelecanos a canvas in which they can both abstractly and concretely approach an industry we all know, but very few of us fully understand.

The pilot episode features not one, but two James Francos, as he plays twin brothers Vincent (Vinnie) and Frankie Martino. The latter has serious gambling issues, and the former manages a bar and often ends up paying for the mistakes of his troubled sibling. Franco isn’t entirely the show’s compass, although he could end up being one of the factors in its balance and morality. Vincent may say some off-color things, he may cheat on his wife, Andrea, but he’s also someone that seems to be trying to find a way out of the gutter.

His brother makes that difficult, and we can see based on the gambling and the people with whom they both associate, it’s likely that the future isn’t exactly either bright or legal for the Martino brothers. Irrespective to the story, Franco is wonderful in these roles. As oddball as James can be as a human being and even as a creative force, he’s incredibly talented, and here he’s able to play two sides of the same coin and really flex his acting muscle.

Similarly, Maggie Gyllenhaal, who already wowed us with Sundance’s The Honourable Woman a few years ago, is far beyond whatever challenge is placed in front of her. In The Deuce, she’s Eileen Merrell, but we’re always going to call her “Candy,” which is what she goes by on the streets as an independent lady of the night. She doesn’t have a pimp, saying frankly “Nobody makes money off my pussy but me,” after telling Rodney (Method Man) she won’t be working for him.

Two scenes that spoke to me most, with the exception of what I found both predictable and necessary in the episode’s closing moments, was Candy’s interaction with a young boy on his birthday, and Darlene (Dominique Fishback) watching A Tale of Two Cities with Louis. In the first, Stuart ends up with Candy after he and his friends pay her 40 dollars to give him a fun night. As she expertly plans to put the condom on him with her teeth, he climaxes immediately. His fun is over. If he wants more, he pays more.

He says it isn’t fair, making the argument that he has to pay the same as someone who she has to work hard with to finish the job. Her response reveals who she is as a businesswoman. His father is an automobile salesman, and she mentions that the guy that comes in who knows what he wants without a test drive pays the same as the customer that tries out half the lot and takes weeks to make a decision. For Candy, it’s her job. That’s it. It’s not about pleasure for her, as it most likely isn’t for most in the industry both then and now.

Later, we see Candy visit her mother, and we discover she has a son. She’s there for the boy’s birthday, and she has a present for him. When she steps into her childhood bedroom, she sits on the bed and stares at the wall. We see photos and pin-ups of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and other starlets of the time. At one time, she was the same teeny-bopper as everyone else we grew up with, respective to who and what was popular at the time. But, it’s a reminder that her money has multiple purposes, and she’s also a human being, rather than just the sex object on the streets.

Darlene works for Larry Brown (Gbenga Akinnagbe), who we’re told is strict and potentially abusive to his women. As soon as this is mentioned, I immediately knew it would be C.C. (Gary Carr) that would turn out to be the real monster. Why? Because all we saw him do was smile and treat newbie Lori (Emily Meade) to breakfast and a sales pitch. He was, and is, a liar. When Ashley (Jamie Neumann) asks him if she can take the night off because of the torrential downpour, we could see what was coming next. It was more gruesome and uncomfortable than expected, but it’s the reality here.

Nothing in The Deuce is likely to be exactly what it seems. The businesses we will see exist in secrecy, often skirt the law, and thwart common decency. People will put on a face in public, and will be entirely different in private. Abby Parker (Margarita Levieva) rides her professor after the two make eye contact during class, but in reality, she’s an English major that understands the concepts of etymological fallacy and syllogism. She talks to Vinnie about the objectification of his waitresses, to which he responds with how much money they made once they went for the prurient interests of the patrons.

Of everyone we met in the pilot, it’s Abby with whom I was most interested. She clearly has aspirations, and isn’t stupid, although going to Hell’s Kitchen to score amphetamines for her friends in order to keep them awake to study for an exam hardly qualifies her for the Ivy League. I’m curious to see what direction her character goes, and whether she’s simply going to be the “good” side of the Vinnie we’re likely to meet once his life goes to complete shit.

Darlene spends several hours with an elderly john named Louis, and we see the two watching the tail end of 1935’s A Tale of Two Cities, adopted from the Charles Dickens novel. Tears well up in her eyes as she sees the final moments, reacting to the idea that nobody loved the man until the end. She’s enthralled, and we see Louis in a sleeveless undershirt sitting in a chair. Darlene is watching the movie on the bed. We may have expected that this was post-coitus, but we find out quickly that this is all Louis wanted. He likes to watch a movie with her, order pizza, and just have a few hours of companionship.

Past the crime, the sex, the money, and the villainy of The Deuce, there’s going to be quite a bit of this kind of thing, and if I’m right, it will be to the show’s benefit. I asked you earlier how you define pleasure? Darlene offered a handjob or anything else to Louis, but he replied that he had gotten what he wanted. This is a lonely old man that wanted a friend, and perhaps wanted it to be a vibrant, young female. It’s almost sad, but if you read stories about the infamous “Girlfriend Experience” encounters in the escort world, it’s hardly an aberration.

Most of us want the physicality above all else, but there’s emotion behind sex that actually matters. Anybody can go find someone and do the horizontal lambada with them if it’s meaningless, but what’s the point? The thrill is temporary, and without feeling, it’s an exercise in selfishness or narcissism…or occasionally in self-loathing. There are some that just love sex, find like minded souls, and that’s their existence. There are others where sex is fantastic and an ultimate desire, but only when it comes with the high of love or a real connection.

The adage of different strokes for different folks proves true, but it’s nice that Simon and Pelecanos show us Louis, just to remind us that everyone doesn’t need or want the same things. It’s not all about the penetration and the ejaculation… sometimes it’s about everything else.

Louis treated her well, paid her in advance to make sure Larry Brown wouldn’t be angry with her for spending a great deal of time for a small pay day, offered her the remains of the food in the room, and let her leave. When she does, he sits on the bed, and we can see in his face that he’s sad to see her go.

This is not going to be an easy series to watch. Uproxx spoke with the creators, and they made it clear they don’t want the sex in this series to be arousing. It isn’t a glorification exercise, but instead is going to take a hard look at a number of issues, with a unique spin, and do it within the confines of 1971. We haven’t gotten to the real beginnings of the porn industry, but we know it’s coming. In fact, we know a lot is on the way with this show.

If there’s anybody I trust in television, David Simon would be near the top of that list. HBO trusts him as well, and he’s never led them astray. Could this be the series that finally puts him on the Emmy map? Franco and Gyllenhaal brings the name recognition that will make them take notice much earlier than they might otherwise. It’s not going to be an uplifting series, a condition which Simon and Pelecanos are well versed in illustrating.

Violence, sickness, pain, adultery, drugs, crime, and perhaps the foulest language of anything since Deadwood may be enough to bring many on board. But, just like Louis, there will be others that will tune in for the nuance, for the realism, and for the willingness to push an envelope for a PURPOSE, rather than for the sake of pushing the envelope. I always point to The Wolf of Wall Street, either the film or Jordan Belfort’s book, as examples of the former. The movie was too long, it was too salacious, and you needed a shower afterward. It almost reveled in its level of debauchery and sin, as did Belfort, who boasts of what an asshole he was in nearly reverential terms.

The Deuce isn’t going to portray 1971 New York, or the years that follow, as anything but what they were for the cast of characters trapped in the industries we’re going to see. Expect some balance, and perhaps depictions of freedom throughout these stories, but as we get to know Vincent, Frankie, Candy, Abby, Darlene, C.C., Ashley, Larry, Bobby, and so many more, we’re going to see much more heartache and much more regret than we are happiness and success.

And that’s why The Deuce resonates with me. The cast is stellar, the minds behind it are proven and worthy, and the show has BLOCKBUSTER written all over it. Unlike Vinyl, where I thought it would work and it didn’t, The Deuce will succeed. It may do so for the wrong reasons, at least initially, but this show has depth, talent, and style. It’s awfully good.

I’ll have a review of all the episodes I’ve screened as a whole next week, without spoilers, and will be reviewing each episode both here at Outkick and via my podcast each Friday. This week, I’ll go into more detail on the show. (Subscribe to Outkick the Culture now.)

HBO likely has itself a winner here. One episode in and I can’t imagine anyone watching wouldn’t want to see more, unless the subject matter turned them off. My prediction is multiple Emmy nominations from the first season alone, and a show that will strengthen as it moves along. The Wire‘s pilot didn’t exactly hook me, but it’s one of the finest dramas of all time. The Deuce‘s pilot did hook me, a solid A- in my book, and with the same men at the helm, the future appears to be bright.

As bright as the flickering neon signs in Times Square.

I’m @JMartOutkick. Ali McGraw’s gonna want my autograph.