The opening scene in the first season of HBO’s The Deuce features a couple lingering at a bar near closing time. The man hits on the woman, and the woman asks about his wife, to which he responds by kissing her neck. Slightly out of focus, we see the owner, Vincent (James Franco), counting cash behind the bar. He’s got a sleazy mustache and a cigarette dangling from his lips. He is completely unmoved by the couple, who leave as the last waitress departs. This is the world of David Simon’s The Deuce — forbidden sex and money.
The 8 episodes depicting New York City’s old grimy, slimy Times Square, circa 1971, showcases the business of sex. Simon and his writing and producing partner, George Pelecanos, write their signature in-depth, thoughtful characters, brought to light by impeccable acting by the cast. The tension of the show rests on the act of prostitutes selling their bodies, the work of it, not the sexuality, because, despite the act, the sex isn’t arousing, and it’s not intended to be. Shot on grainy film stock, instead of prime cable’s usual pristine 4K digital, the look and feel of The Deuce perfectly matches the era and its content, making it feel all the more authentic.
Prostitution is a business, with its much desired commodity, sex, portrayed as simply as that — a product. The show is dead set on making sure that’s known. For example, a prostitute, Candy (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is extraordinary in this role, with her gentle Queens accent that sooths innocent prostitutes and johns alike, with her smirks, and her tough yet vulnerable attitude), gives a young man a lesson as such when he prematurely jumps his gun before sex, and Candy gets up, claiming her work finished. Some sales are easier than others, and she uses the boy’s father, a car salesman, as an example. This is how she makes her living — it’s her job.
The show’s standup business man, our barkeep Vincent, a good natured, moral guy, gets sucked into the world of The Deuce when he bails out his alter-ego twin brother, Frankie (also played by Franco), a gambler and crook who isn’t very good at playing either vice. The mob is after Frankie for debt, and when they mistake Vincent for Frankie, Vincent, the quintessential good angel, helps with Frankie’s payments, and in turn, gets hooked into the “parlor” (brothel) business. Still, at the end of the season Vincent’s struggle to be moral comes bubbling up, and he lashes out, even against Frankie. There’s a very clear theme that is used here, in a slightly heavy handed way — good versus evil.
Herein lies the heart of The Deuce — a place where everyone has an alter ego. The prostitutes wear wigs, skimpy shorts under faux fur jackets, a dichotomy even in their costumes. The wigs to cover identity, and hooker monikers — Candy, Ginger, Ruby, Ashley, Darlene — personas for while they’re up to no good (a la Frankie). Vincent represents the morality, like the true identities of the women; Eileen, Bernice, Dorothy and so on. Each central character on The Deuce is two, and the arc of the show is the struggle to make peace with both sides of the coin, that Candy melds with Eileen.
The city is on a mission to clean up The Deuce, not that you’d know it from the crooked cops trolling parlors to make hush money on the side. As business changes, so does the commodity. Ashley (Jamie Neumann) is an aging prostitute who is slowly being cast aside to Lori (Emily Meade), a young transplant bad girl fresh off the bus from Minnesota. Early on, it’s evident that these women are reliant on their pimps — they need men. The one who doesn’t, Candy, gets repeatedly approached by pimps, but she always turns them down, saying she doesn’t need protection; a statement that turns sour when she’s horribly beaten up — an event that causes Candy to seek out the porn business. Strategically, she makes an alliance with Harvey, a porn director, and becomes his second banana. Yet, one can’t help but feel she’s found her own version of a pimp, as he sets her up with high-end johns to help pay the bills between shoots. But, as the season ends and Candy’s finally found her way behind the camera and into slick porn premiere parties, one suspects she’ll find her way on her own, as she’s always done.
The characters are humane. Darlene (Dominique Fishback) is perhaps the most complex, using her charity bus fare to recruit friends to trick, rather than leave the life. Still, she doesn’t particularly seem to like being a prostitute. Darlene is a survivor, and on the street, she’s making it work, but in parlor life, she gives the air of feeling trapped. None of the women seem to like it in there, but the options are changing. There are now two paths for sex workers: work at a parlor, or become a porn actress.
The show portrays homosexuality, too, which gives depth — lesbians who have sex with men for money, gay men on the porn circuit finding fame, but also getting locked up for the same encounters as straight men. There seems to be an air of change on this front, as well.
On this television show, the prize possession women have on men is sex — that is their unflappable power. As The Deuce is cleaned up, it becomes clear the pimps are actually reliant on the women, and without them, or they’re out of business. When the prostitutes are hidden in the parlors, suddenly the role of the pimp, a protector daddy figure, becomes hazy. And concern is brewing, as we see C.C. (Gary Carr) talking with an ex-pimp, Ace, who’s happy to leave that life behind, and C.C. can sense he’s in trouble. Women will always have sex, but men won’t always have whores.
No character plays the sex card as much as college drop out, Abby, a cocky rich man’s daughter who’s trying on “bad.” She’s seduced a professor for a good grade, and now she’s sleeping with Vincent, who’s her new boss at the bar, and she believes she has a particular hold on him. What Abby has that the other characters don’t, is money, and so her motivations fall into an unsympathetic realm — her goal is to get out from under what all the other characters are aching for, which makes her the least likeable of the ensemble. It renders the illusion that Abby doesn’t really understand what it is that she’s trying to be a part of, and this will be her downfall, which we can’t help but root for, despite ourselves.
At the end of the last episode Abby sees that Vincent regards her exactly as she’s positioned herself to him — as sex, not a woman. This scene harkens the opening of episode one — it’s only Abby and Vincent at an empty bar, he the married man, she the toy. For the first time, her vulnerability shows.
With the fall of one of The Deuce’s prime whores, her death is symbolic of the death of street life. A new age is coming. Vincent, again behind his bar, with his mistress, pious for the time being, is about to change as well — in fact, he already has.