In episode seven of The Deuce, “Au Reservoir,” plenty of situational thickeners stir the plot pot. An especially sinister pimp gets his come-uppance at the end of a bullet from a cheap revolver. Our heroine, Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a long-suffering single mother eking out a living in the oldest profession, shows her worth as an aspiring director at a porn shoot, where she coaxes a young hooker/actress from a stupor to the throes of thespian-ized passion.
It’s just another night on the tube, circa 2017. But the very fact that we can gather by the proverbial American water cooler and discuss, with relative coolness and composure, this series steeped in sex-worker life and the rise of the porn industry in the ’70s attests to the success of a daring adventure on the small screen. By episode seven of this eight-episode series (the finale arrives this Sunday), the initially startling frankness and critical focus on its not-infrequent sexual content — even by HBO’s standards, and including carnality with its high-profile star Gyllenhaal — we’re attuned to the rhythms, the gyrations, and the squalor that is the domain of the slowly unfolding story.
But sex, in this context, is less titillating or provocative than it is an inherent and historic piece of the fabric of life on these mean but also sometimes tender streets, replete with Cheers-like chatter at the Hi-Hat bar or a greasy-spoon diner at the hub of the off-off-Broadway sub-subculture. At its root, The Deuce, another gem in the oeuvre of New TV’s superhero, writer/director/producer David Simon (The Wire), succeeds as a serial drama because of its actual concern for the characters enmeshed in its fascinating ensemble, along with the weirdly seductive mise en scène of N.Y.C.’s prostitution and porn scene of the ’70s, with cops in the wings, with hands out for hush money.
And what a characterful cast of characters, including the sensational Gyllenhaal, a fiercely independent sex worker who works sans pimp and has her eye on filmmaking as a way out of the workaday sheets. James Franco, who also directed last Sunday’s stellar episode, along with episode three, “The Principle Is All,” is superb in his doppelgänger roles as twin brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino, one responsible, the other a swaggering accident waiting to happen. The sibling duality is reminiscent of Ewan McGregor’s very different brothers in this season’s Fargo.
When last Simon and his often-partner in creative crime, George Pelecanos, hit the streets, as a theme and atmospheric setting, it was in New Orleans, in the landmark post-Katrina series Treme. Heading northeast for the very different street beat of The Deuce, they are again on their game. It was a gamble on some fronts, including the fact that the coked-up, disco-punked Vinyl — which gritted beneath the glitz of the music biz in N.Y.C. in the ’70s, and featured at least a strong pilot directed by Martin Scorsese — more or less fizzled.
In this case, of course, the “glitz” is of a tawdrier sort, linked to the promise of cheap, salacious pleasure on the streets of the pre-Giuliani polish job of 42nd Street (“The Deuce” is code for the area of 42nd Street between 8th and 9th avenues, not a place you’d want to take your Aunt Mildred in the 1970s). Into this presumed cesspool, stories of heart and humanity meet at the juncture of bump and grind. What new twists await us this Sunday night? Meet you at the proverbial water cooler.