The Deuce is patient. Halfway through an eight-episode first season about the legalisation and growth of pornography in 1970s America, there are only hints of the industry that will soon signal vast economic and social change. What's apparent is a succession of vivid characters, distinctive but never merely sharp outlines, whose conversations and actions slowly but steadily reveal their inner lives. HBO's new drama is grounded by terrific, immersive writing.
That's to be expected when the creators are David Simon, who put together television's finest series, The Wire, and George Pelecanos, the crime novelist who became part of the same show's writing staff. The Wire used the Baltimore drug trade and its policing to diagnose American society's ills; here the cogs in the machine are sex workers, their pimps, and those who work the adjacent infrastructure that's part of life around a decidedly bleak Times Square.
"One ticket, one ride," a prostitute named Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) tells an overexcited client who thinks he didn't get value for money. As in The Wire, economic realities dictate the power structure that everyone has to work under. The difference is that The Deuce, which has a balance of women behind the camera and in the writers' room, is particularly attuned to its female characters. The street walkers compare notes, share opinions, and reveal themselves in ways that aren't simply defined by their professions.
"Y'all need to keep your lady business to yourself," complains one pimp, when discussion at a communal breakfast joint after a night's work turns to dealing with their periods, and The Deuce is frank about these women's bodies - and how they're used as means of production and earning - in unexpected and often telling ways.
Given the problems HBO has had with sexual violence in its flagship series Game of Thrones, a show about the sex trade could have been a disaster. There is a lot of sex here, sometimes as a sidenote barely in frame because the characters are inured to seeing it, but the prevailing aesthetic is neither glamorous nor prurient - the bodies that are often focused on are those of the clients, turning you back to the clash of motives that underpins these narratives.
It's a woman, university-dropout-turned-bartender Abby (Margarita Levieva), who asks one of the street walkers, Darlene (Dominque Fishback), why she chooses to work as she does in the service of a pimp, and like the show itself she doesn't have a simple answer. It illustrates the vagaries and flaws of human nature, whether through moments of solicitude or instances of brutality, but never tries to apply definitive answers.
The storytelling is strong enough to transcend the period setting. There's no affection applied to 1971 (although based on the garbage strewn and sometimes lawless blocks the setting could be 1671), and instead of nostalgia there's an acknowledgment that earlier times weren't innocent, they were fixed. Everything in this economy, legitimate or not, is marked by payoffs and skims.
James Franco plays twins, Vincent and Frankie Martino, respectively a skilled publican fronting for the mafia and an ebullient (if rarely ahead) gambler. While that allows Franco to work opposite his favourite actor, The Deuce never gets pinned down on the sibling's relationship. Frankie is a marginal presence, while Vincent's joint, the Hi-Hat, is a kind of ground zero for the neighbourhood where different classes and groups meet and drink; the most damage is done by drunken off-duty cops brawling.
The standout performance is from Gyllenhaal. With this and The Honourable Woman, it's proof that actresses often find substantial roles in television but not the movies. Shifting between Candy, who works in a blonde wig, and the off-duty Eileen, Gyllenhaal presents a woman whose independence - she has neither a pimp, nor the custody of her child - has taken her to the very edge.
Her out, after a "sunlighting" session (where a nocturnal prostitute shoots a porn scene during daylight hours), is the adult movie business, which is both illegal and makeshift. "I wanna learn how to make movies," Eileen tells a former director (David Krumholtz). That sense of discovery, allied with ambition, is a driving force in The Deuce. The show may be full of grimy joints and grim realities, but it also offers renewal and change.
WHAT: The Deuce
WHEN: 11am and 8.30pm, Mondays, on Showcase