Entertainment

HBO's New Show About the Porn Industry Is Like 'Boogie Nights' Meets 'The Wire'

The Deuce HBO
HBO

Follow the money. That's the credo from All the President's Men that often gets attributed to screenwriter William Goldman, but for modern audiences the phrase is closely associated with The Wire, producer David Simon's classic Baltimore drug drama. It was given a more vulgar update during Season 1 by Lester Freeman, the show's quiet moral center, and it provided a useful lesson on how to watch, understand, and decipher the often byzantine plotting of the series. If you kept a watchful eye on the cash, you saw the bigger picture.

Almost 10 years after his drug saga ended, Simon is back with The Deuce, a show he co-created with fellow Wire writer and crime novelist George Pelecanos, and on the surface this show could not be more different than the pair's previous work. (The two also wrote HBO's New Orleans drama Treme.) For one thing, The Deuce arrives with two movie star names flashing above the marquee: James Franco plays identical twins Vincent and Frankie Martino, outer-borough strivers looking to get rich in Times Square, while Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Eileen "Candy" Merrell, an experienced prostitute with an eye towards the burgeoning porn industry. The meticulous 1970s period details, like the light-strewn recreation of Times Square, are more like last year's coked-out and quickly canceled HBO series Vinyl than Simon's previous HBO project, the housing miniseries Show Me a Hero. The Deuce is big, sleazy, and fun.

The risqué subject matter is clearly meant to draw in viewers who might be turned away by Simon's civics-lesson-heavy storytelling, but he hasn't abandoned the studied approach that made The Wire a favorite of people who love comparing TV shows to Victorian novels. This is still a show where it's more important to follow the dollar bills in the envelopes than the premium cable nudity. Money doesn't just talk on The Deuce. It fucks.

That's apparent from the first scene: We see Vincent, the more upstanding and straight-laced twin, dropping off the nightly revenue from the bar he works at on his way home. Two goons try to mug him but he's already deposited the cash in the bank. He still gets knocked in the head for his troubles. Later, a pair of pimps talk shit to each other at Penn Station, observing the new arrivals getting off the trains, but their dialogue quickly turns to the political climate and the escalating Vietnam war. The scene builds to a darkly funny question posed by Gary Carr's impeccably dressed C.C.: "So Nixon pimping?" The answer is clear.

From there, the nearly 90-minute pilot episode continues to expand outward. We meet billy-club carrying street cops (Lawrence Gilliard Jr. and Don Harvey), a young sex worker (Dominique Fishback) with a violent loyal customer, gangsters putting pressure on small-business owners, teenagers looking to help their buddy lose his virginity, and a smart young NYU student (Margarita Levieva) excited by the illicit possibilities lurking uptown. On first viewing, not every piece of the puzzle feels essential. Do we really need the scene of the old man watching the MGM adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities with one of the prostitutes? Maybe not, but it's clear Simon and Pelecanos, along with the pilot's director Michelle MacLaren, are building something together.

The best thing about The Deuce so far -- I've watched the first three episodes -- is that it both trusts your intelligence and rewards your attention. While it's increasingly common to see new series that pop up on streaming platforms with high-concept premises and twist-filled pilots, this is a show that doggedly refuses to move at a hyper-accelerated pace. It wants to situate you in the New York of Taxi Driver and the Panic in Needle Park. Let you feel the sticky floors beneath you, and smell the cigarette smoke in the air.

The Deuce HBO
HBO

That type of narrative slow-build can be a lot to ask for and it's not always worth the investment -- again, think of Vinyl, which also arrived with a skillfully directed jumbo-sized pilot -- but The Deuce is told with such a sure hand that it's hard not to get sucked in. From interviews with Simon and Pelecanos, you can tell the pair have ambitions for the show to tell a larger, decades-spanning story about the commodification of sex, the commercialization of Times Square, and the cultural transformation of an entire city. Like AMC's New York period piece Mad Men or Paul Thomas Anderson's porn epic Boogie Nights, the show doesn't lack ambition.

But more importantly, it doesn't lack great scenes -- or great characters -- either. Even more than the often funny exchanges between the dueling Franco brothers, it's Gyllenhaal's world-weary sex worker Candy who draws you into the cold mechanics of the show with her warmth and wit. Whether she's explaining why she doesn't want a pimp watching over her, visiting her son at her mother's house in the suburbs, or putting a condom on a nervous teenager's penis with her mouth, she makes the show come alive. In a series explicitly about exploitation, objectification, and toxic power dynamics, she keeps everything rooted in human emotions. 

At the same time, she knows how capitalism works. "I don't need anybody else to hold my fucking money for me," she says at one point in the pilot, articulating the show's harsh worldview. Cash rules everything around The Deuce. As the narrative expands in the coming weeks -- and possibly years -- expect that to be the only constant.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.