Filled with sexy intrigue and authentic portrayals of human strife, “The Deuce” is the latest in HBO’s lineup of addictive, provocative television dramas. The show, which premiered Sept. 10, has received critical acclaim thus far and was renewed just nine days after its first air date. The show follows the various acts of debauchery and crime that thrived on the “Deuce” — New York City’s 42nd Street — during the 1970s, and delivers with a compelling plot, stellar cinematography, and a standout performance by lead actor James Franco.
Franco stars as both Vincent, an aspirational barman, and Frankie, his lighthearted twin brother who is mired in gambling debts. In order to repay his brother’s debts, Vincent becomes business partners with Rudy Pipilo, a mobster who plans to revamp the Deuce into its former glory as a hotspot of drug dealing and prostitution. The pimps and prostitutes who work along the Deuce must reckon with their personal problems, as well as the corrupt police force patrolling the area.
It is refreshing to see a show pry unapologetically into a subject as taboo as prostitution. Amid the many sex scenes are love triangles, broken relationships among family members and, at the heart of each character, the undying dream for a better life. Each character comes from a different walk of life, which makes the show feel more realistic and honest.
Remarkably, “The Deuce” never gives into the temptation of becoming overly dramatic, despite dealing with subjects like drugs, sex and crime. There are no turns of events so dramatic that they seem implausible, nor are any of the characters overly exaggerated or caricatured. Even the sex scenes, frequent as they are, are not overdone; rather, they desensitize the audience to sex much in the way the characters in the show are constantly exposed to the sex industry.
The relationships between pimps and prostitutes in the show create a complicated web of violence and deceit. Pimps C.C., Larry and Rodney, played by Gary Carr, Gbenga Akinnagbe and Method Man, respectively, switch mercurially from tender protectors to brutal tyrants with their girls. Their deceptive dual natures allow the pimps to convince the girls into doing whatever sex act or drug run is asked of them, even if they have been abused previously. Candy, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is the only character to break this mold by choosing to not have a pimp. She removes herself from the system by getting into the grindhouse movie business.
Steeped in corruption, eroticism and ambition, “The Deuce” is not so much sexy as it is provocative. The setting is criminal by nature, and the presence of New York City’s crooked police force in the show only serves to exacerbate the violence and conflict.
Vincent is by far the least corrupt and most sensible character in the show, unlike Frankie, who is irresponsible and reckless. Although they are identical twins, Vincent and Frankie are completely opposite in character, serving as perfect foils for one another. The show’s comic relief comes mainly from Franco playfully bantering with himself in the twins’ interactions. Vincent and Frankie’s relationship is a gem, particularly within the context of their isolated, dangerous world.
The show’s cinematography is also beautifully crafted. The golden, smoky atmosphere that encompasses the world of “The Deuce” expresses the intimacy of the settings in the show: hotel rooms, theaters, bars, diners. The shots themselves jump from character to character, seamlessly weaving together many different storylines, and cut quickly to show violent, frantic situations. The camera tends to stay with the faces of the characters during moments of pain or conflict, which allows the audience to recognize their turmoil and fear and thus become personally invested in their welfare, rather than focus on the physical aspects of the violence.
The score is incredible, as is typical of HBO shows, but the background music breathes life into those warmly lit settings to create perfect moments of intimacy.
However, “The Deuce” could improve on its individual character arcs. The last installment of the eight-episode season was impactful, but it remained anticlimactic and left most loose ends untied. More structure should have been in place to develop the characters’ progression in the show’s short time span, or perhaps one or two additional episodes would have allowed for the season finale to feel less rushed.
“The Deuce” dives into a harmful subculture of New York City in the ’70s and provokes conversation about the nature of the sex industry today, despite being set almost half a century ago. The characters themselves are multidimensional and intriguing, but the show could benefit from paying more attention to the characters’ motives. Ultimately, “The Deuce” is sharp, impactful and risque — yet another success from HBO.