By: Danielle Fraser
Recently, television has been tapping into historical events and by-gone eras in search for original stories to tell in a bloated marketplace. Snowfall, Vinyl and The Get Down have been the most recent entries in this series sub-genre. As nostalgia eclipses the entertainment industry with the announcements of remake after remake, the market is the perfect place for these kinds of stories to thrive. Vinyl was an HBO production about the 70’s and had the likes of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger behind it. It was ultimately a disappointment and was cancelled after one season. The Get Down, a Netflix Original series about the roots of hip hop and disco in the Bronx during the 1970’s, generated buzz due to Baz Luhrman’s involvement and the heavy price tag. Even though the show gained a dedicated fanbase and overall positive critical reception, Netflix pulled the plug on production after its first season as well. Most recently came Snowfall on FX, a drama tracing the roots of the cocaine epidemic in 1980’s West California from John Singleton of Boyz N the Hood and, fortunately, was just renewed for another season.
Next along the line comes The Deuce, an HBO series chronicling the sex industry and the rise of pornography of 1970’s Times Square. The series, created by David Simon and George Pelecanos of The Wire fame, builds the world of this era around the lives of sex workers, their pimps, police officers, mobsters and bartenders. If any network were to pick up a show with sex, seemingly being the main focus, it would be HBO. At the same time, anyone familiar with HBO shows’ track record of violence towards women would be wary of this show’s treatment of these sensitive topics. Although Pelecanos and Simon are credited as writers for the series, half of the episodes are directed by women. Michelle MacLaren bookends the season by directing the first and the last episodes while Uta Briesewitz directs episode five, and Roxann Dawson directs episode six. As the series progresses, the women of this series take full control and how they must navigate the changing climate of a New York City pushing them off the streets are handled well and become the heart of the narrative.
In comparison to the other shows mentioned, The Deuce takes a comprehensive and character-driven approach to the evolution of the industry of sex and pornography. The best way to see this is through the opening theme and sequence. The screen rolls images of the bright lights and neon signs of Times Square that are intercut with found footage of adult bookstores, triple x-rated movie marquees, and people walking the streets. As we watch these images, the 1970 Curtis Mayfield song “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” plays in the background and the lyrics work to set up the series structure. Mayfield introduces the audience to the points of view they will see throughout the series and their roles in the narrative: “Sisters/Brothers and the whiteys/Blacks and the crackers/Police and their backers/They’re all political actors.” As the people in the opener drive by or walk down the street and as the characters we’re following live their day to day lives, they have an impact on the political and social landscape of Times Square that they are unaware of. They all simply aim to survive under their circumstances without worrying about the hell below that may be waiting for them.
Moving on to the show itself; the pilot clocks in at a daunting hour and a half run time and sets the scene for the rest of the season’s events to unfold. We’re introduced to a pair of twins, both played by James Franco, with a questionable New York accent; Vincent Martino, a bartender with a turbulent domestic life and Frankie, a heavy gambler with debts to the mob. A majority of the episode is split between the twins, an NYU student named Abby, and the pimps: C.C., Larry, Reggie, and Rodney. Abby eventually ties herself to Vinnie’s part of the story by becoming a bartender at his bar but does little more than provide basic feminist commentary and attempts at sympathizing with the sex workers that frequent the bar. Despite Vinnie’s bar being set up as a meeting place for all the stories to converge, the twins serve as little more than a vehicle through which to see the mob’s involvement in the development of moving the sex trade inside the parlors and off the streets.
By the second episode, we spend more time with the sex workers, the real standouts of this story. These women are shown in and out of their jobs, interacting and sharing meaningful relationships with other women and exploring personal interests. Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Ruby “Thunder Thighs” (Pernell Walker) play the roles of the veterans on the block, giving new girl Lori (Emily Meade) tips on how to trick. Darlene (Dominique Fishback) shows interest in film and literature as she watches movies every week with a regular customer and reads A Tale of Two Cities under a bar. Candy also later discovers a passion for filmmaking when she fills in as an actress on the set of a pornographic film. The real treat is when the women are able to come together in Leon’s diner, get away from the pimps and just talk shop amongst each other.
Simon and Pelecano’s are planning on The Deuce to have a three series run, following New York’s 42nd Street throughout the eras. The second series will catalog the height of the late 70’s with the third showing the decline of the New York pornography industry in the 80’s. With it’s different take on the sex industry, the creators of The Deuce is well on their way to carving another long standing place in HBO’s lineup.
Editor: Ammaarah Mookadam