I watched the first episode of The Deuce last night, and it’s fantastic. The new David Simon show, it’s set in and around Times Square in the early 70s, with the show’s focus on how moral crusaders against the sleaze on the street drove the formation of porn as an industry in the US and the vague legitimisation of sex work via massage parlours and the like.
Like Tremé and The Wire, this is a show with a metric shitload of characters, with a few big names (James Franco as twin brothers Vinnie and Frankie Martino, who are fledgling mob frontmen, Maggie Gyllenhall as Eileen “Candy” Merrell, a prostitute who refuses to work for any pimp); a bunch of regualrs from past David Simon productions (Gbenga Akinnagbe, Larry Gilliard Jr, Method Man, Dominique Fishback, Chris Coy), and the obligatory WTF casting (Ralph Macchio as a vice cop?), and the 90-minute first episode is setting the scene for that huge cast, with many of them getting brief character sketches rather than a narrative direction.
But those character sketches, as well as the larger amount of screen time given to a few characters are fantastic viewing. Michelle McClaren of Breaking Bad fame directed the episode, and her camera roves around an amazing reproduction of 70s New York, peeking into sordid nooks and crannies. There’s a lot of sex, some of it quite graphic, but it’s very matter of fact, never erotic or tittilating. These two points combine when the camera pans by a phone booth and while Vinnie greets the man in the booth, we see that a prostitute is on her knees, servicing him. And his erect penis is in her hand as the camera goes by. There’s nothing pornographic about this, and while my instant reaction was pity- that getting off was both so important and so run of the mill that he was willing to do it in a phone booth - but the show doesn’t judge, it just presents.
There’s no romanticism of Times Square the same way Tremé did for New Orleans, and so far it doesn’t seem to present NYC as a metaphor for the decay of America like Baltimore was used in The Wire, but that may well come. There’s a lot of fun background moments along the way - one cinema is showing Mondo Trasho by John Walters, and there’s posters up for The Omega Man, which help make the story and setting feel lived in.
This is definitely worth watching, coming right on the heels of Twin Peaks conclusion means there’s no gap in peak TV drama. For another 7 weeks anyway. Well timed, HBO.