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Catching Up on 2017: Josh Reviews The Deuce Season One

The Deuce is the latest television masterpiece from David Simon (The Wire, Treme, Show Me a Hero) and George Pelicanos (novelist and a key writer on both The Wire and Treme), set primarily around Times Square in the seventies, chronicling the legalization and growth of the porn industry.  This is an eyebrows-raising subject for a TV show, but I am glad I didn’t let that keep me away.  The Deuce is a fantastically rich piece of work, an intimate character piece with a sprawling ensemble that is, in turns, very funny and absolutely heartbreaking.  In other words, just what you’d expect from these two men who were part of the core of creators behind The Wire, which is possibly the greatest TV show ever made.

I’ve been surprised, actually, that I know several people who watched The Deuce and found it to be just mediocre.  I don’t know what show they were watching!  I have heard complaints that the show is too slow, and that nothing jappens.  Those complaints sort of boggle my mind.  Yes, The Deuce is leisurely paced, and yes, the show’s naturalistic approach to story-telling means that there aren’t a ton of Big Dramatic Events packed into every episode.  But The Deuce isn’t that sort of standard television show.  Like all of David Simon’s shows, the focus of the story-telling is fixed, laser-like, on the characters, and the many small events that transpire in their lives.  By that viewpoint, the show is packed with plot.  It’s just small-scale, human drama, rather than the type of big fake drama that makes up a lot of what you see on TV.

Mr. Simon and Mr. Pelecanos have always been masters of this type of detail.  In The Deuce, this manifests in two different main ways.  First, in the way that the show tells it’s over-all “plot”: the story of the explosion of the porn industry in the seventies.  This story isn’t told through a series of BIG dramatic TV moments but, just like in real life, through the accumulation of small events.  Throughout these first eight episodes, the show explores, deeply, many different characters and situations, showing us the burgeoning porn industry at many different levels, from the girls walking the streets, to the pimps, to the guys selling magazines and video reels in sleazy storefronts, to the mob guys who opened the early “massage” parlors, and lots more.  Through this gradual accumulation of detail, the larger story comes into focus.  I love this approach to story-telling.  This is a novelistic approach, which makes sense since many of the show’s key creatuve players are also novelists.

This attention to detail also comes into play, as I have mentioned above, in the show’s approach to characters.  We get to know and connect with the show’s characters through this same type of slow, careful, detail-oriented approach.  As we follow these characters through the eight episodes, we see many small moments in their lives that accrete together into a remarkably full understanding of who these people are, where they’ve been and where there are going.  How well we get to know all of the characters is especially remarkable considering that the show has a huge cast and this first season consisted of only eight episodes.

And what an ensemble!  I loved how expansive the show’s cast of characters is, and how vividly drawn every character is, even those who didn’t have a lot of screen time.  Character after character, we saw a near-perfect blend of talented actor with terrific writing.

Let’s start with James Franco, in the dual role of twin brothers Vincent and Frankie.  What a performance.  I have been following James Franco’s career ever since Freaks and Geeks, so I have long known that he was a talented dramatic actor in addition to being a fantastic comedic performer.  But it’s been a while since I have seen Mr. Franco get to show his stuff like this.  While the show uses a few devices (such as a bruise on Vinnie’s forehead) to allow the audience to easily differentiate between the two brothers in the early going, Mr. Franco’s work is so strong that we quickly don’t need those sorts of cheats to clarify which brother is which.  Mr. Franco is able to create two completely distinct characters.  It’s a terrific performance.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is also fantastic as Eileen “Candy” Merrell, a prostitute attempting to go it her on on the streets, without working for a pimp.  As the season progresses, Eileen’s ambition leads her to get involved in the just-getting-rolling pornographic film business, and so her journey allows the audience to see how that business exploded in the seventes.  Ms. Gyllenhaal is tremendous as Eileen, showing us her strength and intelligence, even as we might not understand or agree with so many of her decisions.  (The show makes the intersting choice not to ever tell us exactly why Eileen decided to become a prostitute.)

I am going to quickly run out of synonyms for fantastic and excellent as I try to write about the rest of this ensemble.  But take a look at the rest of this cast:

Chris Bauer (Frank Sobotka from season two of The Wire) plays Bobby Dwyer, Vincent and Frankie Martino’s brother-in-law who gets involved in a new mob-run whore-house.  Gary Carr, Gbenga Akinnagbe (Chris Partlow from The Wire), Method Man, and Tariq Trotter play pimps C.C., Larry, Rodney, and Reggie Love, each of whom is fascinating and complex.  Chris Coy (Treme) plays Paul, the gay bartender who works for Vinnie.  Mr. Paul is terrific, and Paul could almost be the lead of an entirely different show set in this same era.  Margarita Levieva plays Abby, a young college student who drops out of school and eventually finds herself also working in Vinnie’s bar.  Dominique Fishback plays the young prostitute Darlene, and Pernell Walker plays Ruby, the more experieced prostitute nicknamed “Thunder Thighs”.  Emily Meade plays Lori, a young woman from Minnesota who travels to New York City to become a prostitute.  Lawrence Gilliard Jr. plays Chris Alston, an NYPD patrolman who works in the Deuce.  Don Harvey plays Alston’s partner, Danny Flanagan.  Natalie Paul plays Sandra Washington, a young newspaper reporter who wants to write an article detailing the experiences of the sex workers working in the Deuce, and who befriends Alston so that she can get to know some of the players.  Michael Rispoli (The Sopranos) plays Rudy Pipilo, a Gambino family capo who is the mob’s main point-person overseeing their growing involvement in the sex-trade happening in the Deuce. David Krumholtz (who has had so many great roles, but for me he will forever be Mr. Universe from Serenity) plays Harvey Wasserman, a porn-movie director with whom Eileen gets involved as she attempts to learn that new trade.  Michael Kostroff (corrupt lawyer Maurice Levy from The Wire) pops up as Rizzi, a sergeant in Alston and Flanagan’s precinct, and don’t blink or you’ll miss Ralph Macchio (The Karate Kid) as a vice cop in the Deuce (who I hope will have more to do on the show in season two)!

Whew!  I wasn’t kidding when I said this show has an amazing, expansive cast!  And I haven’t even come close to listing all of the characters.

David Simon is a giant of the television industry, and I am so happy that he is back with this show for HBO.  He and George Pelicanos have created something special here, and I can’t wait to see where the show goes in its second season.  At only eight episodes, I was worried, at first, that this opening season wouldn’t have the depth of Mr. Simon’s earlier shows, but Mr. Simon and Mr. Pelecanos paced their story perfectly, so that the eight episodes feel like exactly the right length for their tale.  The show doesn’t overstay its welcome (in the manner than many of the thirteen-episode-long Netflix shows seem to run out of story two-thirds of the way through), and while certainly there is a lot more story to tell in a second season, I was so pleased that this first season told a complete story that left me fully satisfied by the end.

Don’t let the subject matter keep you away from The Deuce.

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