I did not think I would ever see another American TV series that offered as searing a critique of capitalism as “The Wire.”
But after seeing David Simon’s “The Deuce,” an eight-part HBO production that looks at the rise of the porn industry in 1970s New York, I have to admit I was wrong.
Viewers of “The Deuce” will see capitalism laid bare in one of its basest forms: people selling their bodies and the bodies of others they ruthlessly control.
And then, as the series chronicles the shift in New York City from street prostitution to onscreen pornography, viewers will see how desire is used to sell narratives, fantasies and products that come to shape our lives.
Along with that keen sociology, “The Deuce” is accessible, entertaining and emotionally engaging in ways that none of Simon’s other politically astute and rightfully celebrated productions, like “The Wire,” have been in their first few hours.
I watched the pilot, which premieres at 9 p.m Sept. 10, and thought, OK, technically, it’s an excellent piece of work. It creates a universe and, like a carnival midway, makes it so energized and exotic that you can’t stop looking. But do I care enough about anyone in this urban netherworld of neon, skin, sex, hustle, bell-bottoms, brutality and booze to get lost emotionally in their lives for seven more hours?
I was thinking the answer was ultimately going to be no. But by the end of the second episode, I realized I was starting to seriously care about at least a couple of the people in this series. And by the end of the eighth, my heart was breaking for what happened to one character to whom I had become deeply attached without noticing. Emotionally charged moments and razor-sharp bits of dialogue are still rattling around in my brain.
Full marks to any storyteller who can do that to me as a viewer.
The series opens in 1971 New York City on an act of violence and is absolutely steeped in sex from beginning to end. But almost none of it seems pandering or gratuitous. This is premium cable, after all, so if a graphic look at oral sex shocks you, save your money and stay away.
From the very start, the camera is mostly on James Franco as Vincent Martino, a bartender looking to move up in the world of nightlife. And the arc of his story is more engaging and ultimately satisfying than any I can think of in another drama from Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who still lives here. The pilot finds Vincent working multiple jobs for bar owners who don’t appreciate his talent and married to a woman who resents his being away from home at work almost every night.
He’s good-looking, hard-working, honest and seems smart. Yet when we first meet him, he’s being treated like a doormat in this world of hustlers, pimps, gangsters, wiseguys and prostitutes. You realize what skilled writers Simon and co-creator George Pelecanos are by the efficiency with which they define Vincent’s status and potential on this hard, neon landscape.
I am sure one of the reasons I find this series more accessible than other Simon productions is the presence of Franco. His star status and leading-man onscreen charisma say right out of the box, “This is the guy to watch.” And once you look his way, he never lets your attention go anywhere else.
The pleasure of his performance is doubled with his playing not only Vincent Martino, but his identical twin, Frankie — a good looking, irresponsible, goof-off who when we first meet him is in serious trouble with the mob over unpaid gambling debts.
The energy and attitude Franco brings to the character is captured in a moment near the end of Episode 3 when he punches up the 1971 song “Mr. Big Stuff” on a jukebox in his brother’s bar and struts his stuff across the dance floor.
Just as Simon and Pelecanos have a big star to play the male lead, they have Maggie Gyllenhaal in the female lead as a street prostitute named Candy. Don’t come looking for TV cliches about prostitutes here.
Part of the character’s appeal is a result of her arc of independence, grit and aspiration. Candy wants to move off the pavement and into making porno films. She refuses to take no for an answer when a filmmaker tells her the obscenity laws are too strict to do that in a serious way in the United States.
They do it in Europe, she says.
“Europe is Europe,” the filmmaker replies dismissively.
“If they can make and sell that in Europe, it’s not going to be long before we can make and sell it here,” she insists.
“How do you know?” he says, still not sounding all that interested.
“It’s America, right?” she says with a knowing smile. “When do we ever leave a [expletive] dollar on the table for the other guy to pick up? Am I wrong?”
And now, he’s smiling back at her, because she’s right: That’s exactly how American capitalism behaves. And, indeed, the obscenity laws in New York City do start to be overturned as a result of political pressure to get sex and porn off the streets and into peep shows, theaters and massage parlors. On the streets, they make for bad PR for a mayor with national political aspirations. Indoors, they just make money — lots of it.
Gyllenhaal’s performance is as impressive as Franco’s. I thought she was outstanding in “The Honorable Woman,” but I never appreciated how she can hold the camera and fill the screen with her facial presence before seeing her in “The Deuce.”
There are also strong supporting performances from Chris Bauer, Lawrence Gilliard, Jr., Gbenga Akinnagbe, Michael Rispoli, Gary Carr, Emily Meade, Margarita Levieva and Pernell Walker.
Fans of “The Wire” might remember Gilliard, Akinnagbe and Bauer from “The Wire,” where they played D’Angelo Barksdale, Chris Partlow and Frank Sobotka, respectively. Bauer plays a brother-in-law of the Martinos, while Akinnagbe is a pimp and Gilliard is a New York police officer working in the precinct that includes The Deuce, the slang name for 42nd Street.
The NYPD storyline provides one of several strong leitmotifs in “The Deuce.” Except for Gilliard’s character, Officer Chris Alston, most of the cops are as crooked as the hustlers and gangsters in this world. Their main focus seems to be squeezing every bar, massage parlor and porn bookstore in their precinct for a weekly payment to look the other way.
“No rat hole is too small to be on the [expletive] pad,” is the way one character cynically puts it in describing the widespread corruption.
The scenes with New York cops shaking down bar owners feel as if they are homage to director Sidney Lumet’s 1973 film “Serpico,” and I mean that as high praise.
Simon enriches his dramas with several layers of meaning and pop-culture commentary beyond the straight storylines. They’re like candied sprinkles on top of a cupcake.
In Episode 2, Frankie enters a bar in which Vincent is seated at a table meeting with a group of mobsters.
“What is this, ‘The Patty Duke Show’?” one of the gangsters says as he looks from Vincent to Frankie, referencing the popular ABC sitcom that aired in the mid-1960s starring Patty Duke as identical cousins Patty and Cathy Lane. Beyond the sarcasm and wry reference to a star playing identical siblings in a TV show, it is pitch-perfect in suggesting the pop cultural references of that era.
Baltimore viewers get their own pop culture sprinkle early in the pilot as Vincent walks under a Times Square movie marquee that says: “From the outrageous John Waters … Starring Divine… ‘Mondo Trasho.’ ”
For more 1970s film homage, check out the shots of Vincent’s shoes hitting the pavement a la John Travolta’s Tony Manero in “Saturday Night Fever.” And listen for the echoes of the 1974 classic “Chinatown” in Vincent’s last words in Episode 8.
“It’s the Deuce,” he says, sounding the same note of resignation with corruption and cruelty that’s voiced when Jack Nicholson’s character is told at the end of “Chinatown,” “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
As for the music of that era, some of the best songs in this production were released in the 1960s, but they would have certainly been on the radios and jukeboxes that the characters in “The Deuce” listen to. Two tunes in this killer soundtrack, “These Ain’t Raindrops” by James Carr and “Pale Blue Eyes” by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, sent me to my laptop, where I have been playing them repeatedly.
Ray Charles singing “Careless Love” over a final montage at the end of Episode 8 is one the most eloquent pairings of music and image since Simon used Solomon Burke’s version of Van Morrison’s “Fast Train” to end Season 3 of “The Wire.”
“The Deuce” is a series that at the very least will make Sunday nights a most entertaining place to be for HBO subscribers. But, in the bargain, it will also offer anyone willing to go on this journey with Simon and Pelecanos a chance to understand in a visceral way some of the forces that have rigged the system in the favor of a few and ruthlessly exploited many others.
There is an irony here: Since its arrival in American homes in the early ‘50s, TV has been the driving agent in American life of using sexual fantasy and desire to sell the consumer culture that lies at the heart of capitalism.
As a result, television almost never talks about the symbiotic relationship between media and capitalism. That’s too close to home.
But Simon and Pelecanos do, and HBO let’s them do it in “The Deuce.”
Don’t miss the chance to see and feel it.
“The Deuce” premieres at 9 p.m. Sept. 10 on HBO.