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September 06, 2017

HBO takes another shot at early-‘70s New York with ‘The Deuce’

Despite disaster that was ‘Vinyl,’ new HBO series walks on the wild side with sex biz-based drama

It’s clear from Sunday’s upcoming premiere of “The Deuce” that the programming honchos at HBO do not subscribe to the old saying, “Once bitten, twice shy.”

In 2016, the trailblazing, Emmy-drenched cable channel had a bona fide disaster on its hands with “Vinyl,” the relentlessly over-the-top—and generally downright silly--music-industry drama set in 1973 New York that was powered by the ostensible dream team of co-creators Martin Scorcese and Mick Jagger. Even though the dream-teamers ultimately conjured a nightmare (if a nightmare can be laughable), it obviously didn’t scare the network’s braintrust away from revisiting the sleazy, slimy subcultures of early-1970s New York. And while it’s too early to make any definitive predictions based on the exposition-heavy pilot episode that debuts Sept. 10 at 9 p.m., it appears HBO has atoned for the many sins of “Vinyl.”

Conceived and written by David Simon (“The Wire,” “Treme”) and his longtime creative partner, novelist George Pelacanos, and executive produced by, among others, novelist Richard Price (“Clockers,” “The Night Of”), “The Deuce” offers an unstinting look at the pre-AIDS, anything-goes time period in American culture when sex and its various affiliated industries (especially pornography) began to insinuate their way into the cultural mainstream.

The petri dish for this chain of events was Manhattan’s Times Square--today, a Disneyfied playground for tourists, but, 46 years ago, a festering hellhole of drugs and, especially, sex. Thus, “The Deuce,” which was the nickname by which its denizens referred to 42nd Street during the age of bellbottoms and platform shoes.

“The Deuce” tells this seamy, if compelling, tale by focusing on a group of characters that includes hookers, pimps, drug dealers, corrupt cops and the like. It is a collection of human flotsam and jetsam that, thanks to the superb writing and equally facile acting on display in Episode One, promises a tale (or tales) worth following, as well as plenty of vicarious thrills for the viewing public.

Make no mistake: Watching “The Deuce” is not a light-hearted endeavor. The depictions of sexual acts are as raw and graphic as any a cable series has ever offered. Especially tough to watch is the violence—physical and psychological--perpetrated upon the prostitutes who populate the series by both their pimps and their johns. How tough? Suffice it to say that even before the show’s premier, women’s advocacy groups are charging “The Deuce” “normalizes” and “glorifies” such violence. I’m not sure what kind of sociopath would see this as an endorsement of such heinous behavior, but certainly the leeway the creative team had, while likely to appeal to the prurient interests of a deeply disturbed minority, enhances the visceral impact of the story they’re telling. Sure, there will be scenes that many will (and should) find discomfiting, but the violence, especially, doesn’t seem overly gratuitous, given the public’s obvious appetite for such depictions.

Besides, it’s difficult to lambast HBO for the content considering the emphasis on rape in which its current signature series, “Game of Thrones,” clearly revels.

Like most of HBO’s A-List dramas, “The Deuce” is an ensemble piece. Heading up the cast are two of filmdom’s most dependable contemporary character actors, James Franco and Maggie GyllenhaalIn a turn that seems to be all the rage these days (e.g. Ewan McGregor in the recent season of “Fargo”), Franco plays twin brothers, the Brooklyn-reared Frankie and Vincent Martino.

Frankie is an amoral ne’er-do-well, an inveterate (and unlucky) gambler in debt up to his cheesy moustache to the mob. Vincent, at least, has made an effort to live as a “citizen:” He has an estranged wife, a son and daughter who are clearly his sun, moon and stars and he isn’t afraid to bust his butt at multiple jobs in order to provide for said characters.

Franco plays the former with plenty of zesty sleaze, and the latter in a subtlely empathetic way (although it’s already clear Vincent is more anti-hero than hero). It is upon his shoulders the entire undertaking rests. The smart money says he’ll get the job done.

As the series’ lead whore, “Candy,” Gyllenhaal is also painted in human terms. She is a veteran streetwalker, operating without a pimp, and has far higher ambitions and a very ordinary other life. Gyllenhaal’s sexy world-weariness plays well here; she was a fine choice by casting director Alexa L. Fogel, an old HBO hand whose credits include “Oz,” “Treme” and “The Wire.”

Of the supporting cast members, early indications are that Dominique Fishback as the hooker Darlene, and Gary Carr as her pimp, C.C., will be using “The Deuce” as a springboard for bigger and better things.

Chuck Darrow is a veteran entertainment columnist and critic. Listen to “That’s Show Biz with Chuck Darrow” 3 p.m. Tuesdays on WWDB-AM (860),, iTunes, IHeartRadio, and TuneInRadio.

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