The version of New York City portrayed in HBO’s new original series “The Deuce” is gritty. There are no SoulCycles or gourmet smoothie shops — only cigarette smoke and dirty sidewalk lines with peep shows. Set in the 1970s, “The Deuce” tells a story of prostitution and the emergence of mainstream pornography films. The subject of this series may turn some off, but the show does an excellent job of avoiding the pitfalls of either romanticizing or demonizing the sex trade, and instead provides real, raw stories for viewers to enjoy.
The plot revolves around the pimps and women who work the streets. C.C. and Larry, two prominent pimps, oversee operations and manage people like Lori, a small town girl with an eager attitude, and Darlene, a sweet girl interested in literature. On the other side of the law are officers Alston and Flanagan, two policemen with deep ties to the local night life, who work in a precinct rampant with corruption.
But it is Vincent and Candy, played by James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal, respectively, who drive the show. Franco, who is usually known for his roles in lighter, more comedic films such as “Pineapple Express,” delivers a surprisingly solid performance as a disgruntled bartender struggling to pay off his twin brother’s gambling debts.
Candy walks the streets alone, refusing the protection of working for a pimp. She is smart and knows that she does not need a man behind her to do her job. Candy’s independence and sharp dialogue provide a feminist undercurrent to a show that relies heavily, sometimes too much so, on female objectification. Gyllenhaal shines in this role, giving dimension and depth to a single mom who later becomes enthralled with the allures of the pornographic film industry.
At its core, “The Deuce” is about more than the sex indus- try. It uses the worlds of por- nography and prostitution as a platform from which to explore issues of capitalism, sexism and power. America has always had a complicated relationship with nudity and sex, but this series is about the “American Dream” and the porn industry. It is about making money and creating an empire from squalor.
While there are a lot of great things about “The Deuce,” it moves slowly at times. The show jumps back and forth between multiple storylines, which is interesting, yet there is not always plot development within those vignettes.
“The Deuce” provides an intriguing look into an elusive topic. There is not gratuitious nudity, so if you are tuning into this show expecting it to resemble HBO’s late night selection, you might be disappointed. But if you are looking for quality television with decent acting, a lot of swearing and a few NYU shoutouts, this show is for you.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 11 print edition. Email Lily Dolin at [email protected]