'The Deuce': The Birth of Porn in America, as Told by the Creator of 'The Wire'

In HBO's ‘The Deuce,’ David Simon of ‘The Wire’ and ‘Treme’ fame recreates the sleaze of 1970s Times Square to turn his unsentimental eyes on the sex and drug industries

James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Pernell Walker in 'The Deuce.'
HBO

The arrival of a new show from David Simon is always a reason to celebrate. Not only because he has given us some of the best television of the past two decades, but because, as a former journalist, he gives hope to anyone in that benighted profession who may be resigned to spending the rest of their careers stuck in a newsroom.

Simon began his career as a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun, before taking a leave of absence to write “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” in which he detailed the year he spent shadowing the Baltimore Police Department homicide unit in 1988. That book was subsequently adapted for television by NBC and ran for seven seasons.

The zenith of Simon’s writing career, however, was “The Wire,” a five-season masterpiece that examined life in Baltimore through the lens of several of the city’s most important and dysfunctional institutions and subcultures: the police department, City Hall, the unions and various drug and crime organizations.

He followed this up with “Treme,” which, over the course of four seasons, told the story of post-Katrina New Orleans through the jazz and blues musicians working and living in the city. Like many of Simon’s previous works, “Treme” was infused throughout with ultrarealistic dialogue and situations and an ensemble cast that would make any Hollywood producer jealous.

Now, Simon has teamed up with detective novelist George Pelecanos — who also worked on “Treme” — to give us “The Deuce,” a period drama set in 1970s New York, at a time when the drug and prostitution industries were turning the Big Apple into a maggot-infested den of inequity.

In the 84-minute pilot episode of “The Deuce,” we are introduced to the characters of twin brothers Vinnie and Frankie Martino, both of which are played by James Franco. Vinnie is the responsible sibling, who works two jobs to provide for his family; Frankie is more reckless, amassing gambling debts for his brother to pay off and on the lam from his creditors.

As in many of Simon’s works, the story line is sprawling and involves many characters: C.C. the pimp, who prowls Grand Central Station looking for new recruits for his prostitution ring; the experienced hooker, Candy, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who leaves her young son with her mother in order to work the streets; Abby, the privileged NYU student who is accidentally exposed to the seedier side of the city after she is arrested attempting to buy drugs.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in 'The Deuce.'
Paul Schiraldi Photography / YES

After just one episode of “The Deuce,” it is clear that HBO has another hit on its hands. With his trademark realism and total lack of sentimentality, Simon has recreated a dark period in the history of New York City to perfection. With Canadian director Michelle MacLaren (“Breaking Bad,” “The X-Files” and “Game of Thrones”) at the helm, the pilot episode is dark, threatening and spartan; Mexican cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino, who was responsible for the bleakness of “Ozark,” was brought in to recreate the desolation of that eponymous region in 1970s Times Square.

The key to Simon’s success is his ability to create believable characters and to have them speak like real people. Unlike, say, Aaron Sorkin, whose characters are eloquent and witty to the point that the viewer cannot help but hear the author speaking the lines, Simon’s talk the way that real people talk. There’s no pontification and no great speeches. Simon’s characters use the vernacular of their walk of life: The pimps sound like pimps, the hookers do not launch into long soliloquies about the nature of their profession.

And, unlike some HBO shows we could name, the sex scenes in “The Deuce” are as tawdry and unerotic as one would expect them to be. Like everything that Simon touches, these scenes are realistic almost to the point of having a documentary feel to them. The clients are disgusting pigs and the sex workers do not all have hearts of gold. After the airbrushed sex scenes of “Game of Thrones,” where the actors were all chiseled demigods, it’s almost a pleasure to see scenes of fumbling, hurried and totally unsexy sex.

Ostensibly, “The Deuce” is about the birth of the pornography industry in the United States. But the sex is secondary. This is actually a show about what happens when capitalism is allowed to run amok. It is about greed, cruelty and violence. But it avoids falling into the trap of moral judgment. The characters are not good versus bad; they are human beings, who do whatever they need to do to survive. The characterization of a violent pimp is as nuanced as that of the show’s main protagonists and characters whose untimely demise would be preordained in more moralist shows are not so easily dispatched in Simon’s world.

Also helping to ensure that “The Deuce” will be a hit are the performances by its two main stars, Franco and Gyllenhaal. They are two of Hollywood’s biggest stars and the fact that they have thrown themselves so eagerly into this new project is testimony to the reputation that Simon enjoys among A-listers.

Franco, whose roller coaster career has seen him pick up an Oscar nomination for “127 Hours” and then roundly mocked for “The Interview,” is an interesting phenomenon. He is undoubtedly a talented actor, who has branched out into directing, but his quirky persona and pretty-boy good looks have tended to hold him back. He muddied the waters even further in 2013, when he allowed himself to be the subject of a Comedy Central roast, during which he appeared to be “in character” as a slightly stupid, self-absorbed and good-natured goofball.

Gyllenhaal, in contrast, is a “serious” actor. To research her role in “The Deuce,” she met with former Times Square prostitutes and spent time on the set of a porn movie. In a recent interview, she explained why she fought to be included as a producer on the show. “I thought it would be a guarantee that my mind would be included in the storytelling process, not just my body,” she said.

Thus far — one episode into the eight-episode first season — it seems that all those involved have managed to find the elusive formula for telling the story of the American porn industry without descending into prurience or vicarious thrill-seeking. It’s a show about sex and drugs, but rather than glamorize those staples of TV and film, it portrays them with historical accuracy. Often, this approach kills a show; hyperrealism can turn a drama into a dry fly-on-the-wall documentary about despicable people. David Simon, however, remains the master of generating empathy of unlikeable characters and sympathy for behavior that, in the hands of any other writer, would turn any audience against the heroes.