The Deuce series premiere recap – “Pilot”


The Deuce premiere sets the ground work for documenting the rise of the adult film industry in 1970’s NYC through various lenses.

Just as David Simon did with The Wire, the former journalist’s latest HBO series explores the expansive world of a crime-ridden American city filled with engaging characters on both sides of the law. This time, instead of post-9/11 Baltimore or New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (Treme), Simon has chosen to set the story in the birthplace of the modern-day porn industry: 1970’s New York City.

Most of the action takes place along 42nd Street, a stretch of mid-town nicknamed “The Deuce,” near a much less sanitized version of Times Square. It’s populated at night by streetwalkers and their pimps, where the NYPD mostly turn a blind eye to the illicit activity in exchange for bribes.

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Unlike other period dramas, including the network’s short-lived 70’s musical Vinyl, The Deuce refuses to romanticize the decade, showing the Big Apple in all its gritty, crime-infested glory. Simon immediately draws viewers in using witty dialogue between two smooth-talking pimps, CC (Gary Carr) and Reggie Love (The Roots’ Tariq Trotter). Reggie compares his approach to pimping to then-President Richard Nixon’s “carrot-stick” Vietnam War strategy, before CC eyes his next prospect: the newly arrived small town girl, Lori (Emily Meade).

She quickly adapts to the streets, later seeking advice from weary veteran Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), one of the few hookers operating without a pimp despite pleas from the likes of long-haired Rodney (Method Man). But she manages to handle herself with a toughness and self-assuredness not seen in the other women, immediately signaling that she’s destined for bigger things. The other working girls include soft-spoken Ashley (Jamie Neumann), who immediately feels threatened by Lori’s closeness with CC, and the young, good-hearted Darlene (Dominique Fishback), who takes a beating from one client and later tears up while watching TV for several hours with another regular towards the end of the episode.

James Franco, likely the show’s biggest draw, does solid work as twin brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino. Vinnie, a hard-working barman, leaves his two kids and his wandering wife behind in Brooklyn to live in a sleazy Times Square motel where much of the show’s illicit activity goes down. He also has to clean up the messes left behind by his ne’er-do-well brother, whose gambling debts leave him in hot water with various mobsters and bookies from around the city. Franco smartly gives each character unique New York accents. He does his best work when performing on-screen alongside himself, giving both twins their own proper identity, ensuring that viewers will always be able to distinguish between the two men.

Credit: HBO

But it’s Gyllenhaal who provides the show’s strongest performance. We see her in action when servicing a nervous young man gifted a good time by his friends. She manages to demonstrate her gentleness, sensuality and business savvy in one of the episode’s many sex scenes where the aforementioned client prematurely ejaculates, earning some of his birthday money in exchange for some extra time after succinctly comparing herself to a car dealer while explaining her job.

Later, Candy drops the messy blonde wig and goes back home to the suburbs where she’s known as Eileen to visit her mother and son. The seductive veneer is quickly dropped, and we see the real woman beyond just the streetwalker. Just like Franco, she impressively displays a duality in her performance, except it’s within one character.

Credit: HBO

The biggest question mark of the pilot is Margarita Levieva’s Abby, a college student who’s busted in the area for attempting to buy drugs to help her and her friends study for an exam the next day. She’s brought down to the police station by Office Flanagan (Don Harvey), who clearly has ulterior motives when quickly letting her go. It’s at the station where she meets Chris Alston (The Wire‘s Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), a black patrolman who will play a bigger role in exposing the corruption taking place in his precinct with help from a young reporter, according to synopses for future episodes.

At first, it’s unclear how Abby connects to the rest of the story until her arresting office takes her to the bar where Vinnie works and the two immediately hit it off. The bartender casually offers her a job. She declines, but after she decides against taking her exam the next day, it’s apparent that she’s more intrigued by the world she was briefly exposed to at Vinnie’s bar (and by Vinnie himself) than a cookie cutter lifestyle as a college student.

The first episode ends with Ashley finding CC at Vinnie’s bar on a rainy night. She complains that she doesn’t want to work in bad weather. CC insists she go back at first but eventually agrees to go somewhere else to talk. Later that night back at his motel, Vinnie hears screams from down the hallway, only to find CC slicing into Ashley’s armpit with a knife and threatening her with further damage if she continues to refuse to work.

The act not only dashes Ashley’s hope that her relationship with CC is anything more than professional, but it also signals to Vinnie that he may be in for more than he bargained for by moving to the area, and it serves as a reminder to viewers that despite their charismatic presence, these are dangerous men using violent and exploitative methods to keep their women in check.

The Deuce is ultimately about power, who possesses it and how it shapes society. So far, Candy and Abby are the only women who control their own destiny, while the others are all under the thumb of men who are all too eager to demonstrate who’s really in charge. Even the Martino brothers fall into the trappings of following those who posses power and money, eventually becoming a front for a local mob family. Meanwhile, the NYPD may appear to be one of the more powerful forces in the city, but they too succumb to the greed and corruption that comes with the local sex industry, including the Mafia-run massage parlors.

Next: The Deuce season 1 trailer and synopses for episodes 1, 2 and 3

Ultimately, for a show about porn and prostitution, it doesn’t seem all that interested in sex (despite copious amount of both male and female nudity) as anything more than a business, focusing instead on the power structures and the systemic issues of the time.

The Deuce airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET starting Sept. 10th on HBO. However, the pilot is currently available via HBO NOW, HBO GO and on-demand.