David Simon has helmed multiple projects since the end of The Wire, including the brilliant, imagistic Treme and the docudrama miniseries Show Me a Hero. But it wouldn’t be fair to call the new HBO series The Deuce, co-created by Simon and George Pelecanos, a return to form: After all, those other two series share a distinctly similar shape. Nevertheless, The Deuce feels more like a return to the world of The Wire than any show that Simon, Pelecanos, or anyone else has created in the intervening years, and it’s not just the familiar faces in front of the camera or the credit sequence’s font choice.
Yes, The Deuce takes place in a different city (New York) and a different era (the early ’70s). It’s interested in different vices and different violence. But it’s more like The Wire than anything that’s been on TV in the last decade. That has to do with what The Deuce is about, but it’s also about what it feels like when you watch it. With that in mind, here are five reasons why The Deuce will remind you of The Wire — and one reason why it won’t.
Institutions vs. Individuals
More than drug dealers, cops, teachers, stevedores, local politics, or crime, The Wire was about massive, immovable institutional bureaucracies that crush individual lives. Simon and Pelecanos play with those ideas in their other series, but The Deuce is the most explicit companion to The Wire’s grand thematic project. From multiple levels, The Deuce explores how seemingly enigmatic orders filter down into ordinary people’s lives, and how it’s impossible for any agency to flow in the opposite direction. Whole enterprises can flourish and wither in the space of an odd loophole or a meretricious crackdown. Lives and livelihoods can fall to the whim of a political fad. The Wire and The Deuce follow characters at many levels of privilege and power, but they’re both ultimately stories of how shit always rolls downhill.
Story As a Mosaic
We’ve gotten used to TV shows that follow huge casts and split our attention among a dozen diverging stories. There’s a distinct flavor to the way The Deuce uses that strategy, though: It doesn’t just focus on carefully interwoven pieces of a conspiracy, or opposing forces that compete with one another. It’s about locating each individual within the bigger machine they cannot fully see or control.
That was one of the distinct takeaways of The Wire: The broader viewpoint was not about hoping characters meet each other, or watching strangers whose lives are unexpectedly in parallel. It was a story made of a dozen small pieces that could only be fully understood from a distance. Much of The Deuce feels tighter than the large, tenuous networks of The Wire — these characters tend to spend time in the same places, and there’s more interaction between various branches of the story — but the feeling of watching it is the same. Each player has a role in the game, but the game itself is only visible from a bird’s-eye view.
The No-Go Zone
Both series pick up at moments when institutional efforts are spinning their wheels in response to widespread criminal economies: drugs in 21st-century Baltimore for The Wire, sex trade in ’70s-era New York for The Deuce. Without going into specific details about The Deuce’s first season, both shows also explore the push and pull of crime and enforcement. A police crackdown in one spot leads to criminal enterprise moving somewhere else; the decision to ignore crime on a few blocks turns that neighborhood into a free-for-all.
The idea of a “no-go zone” will be a familiar premise for any Wire viewers who remember Bunny Colvin and Hamsterdam. It’s great fodder for plot — who decides where it is? How is it enforced or not? Who decides to take advantage of it? What happens when it inevitably falls apart? — but it’s also a returning feature for Pelecanos and Simon to consider social structures. The fundamental idea is that some things (like sex work and drugs) will happen regardless of whether they are criminal, legal, enforced, or ignored. The question is, what kinds of pressure lead to more or less violence? What’s acceptable in the interest of keeping the peace elsewhere?
Every Detail Matters
Pelecanos and Simon use a very particular technique to cut between their story lines. Like other TV shows with large casts, an episode of The Deuce or The Wire bounces around many characters, giving us a little piece of story in one part of the world and then cutting it off to go visit someone else. In The Deuce, we get an evolution of this style: There’s no impulse to make every small scene do obvious, forward-moving work. We can watch a long shot of Vincent Martino (James Franco) polishing glassware, or Eileen Merrell (Maggie Gyllenhaal) leaning back against a wall, and there’s no big lesson in either. We’re just watching tiny glimpses of lives, which offer us intimate character development and a sense of the mundane.
With Treme, that strategy wound up taking over the series. Much of Treme was built out of leisurely glances into lived experience, and the scenes themselves tended to relax into multi-minute visions of jazz clubs, freed from the burden of connecting to anything in particular. Compared to that looser approach, The Deuce feels much more in keeping with The Wire’s balance. Even when we’re getting a brief shot of a prostitute eating lunch, the whole mechanism of the plot is wound just a bit more tightly.
The worst and least accurate legacy of The Wire (and other shows about violent men in the era of prestige TV) is the idea that stories should have an emotional range somewhere between terrifying and deeply sad. The Wire was funny. To be clear, it was funny in a deeply wry, sardonic sense: If you’re getting crushed inside the cruel wheels of a government that doesn’t care about you anyhow, you might as well laugh, right?
This is also the humor of The Deuce, which is funny in any number of similarly silly and sad ways: James Franco’s various mustaches, a particularly great line reading by Anwan Glover, the mechanics of filming a money shot, and a table full of pimps at a diner discussing a movie. There were also moments like this in Call Me a Hero and Treme, but both of those series felt too close to real-life crises to fully escape the pall of respectful remembrance.
… and One Big Difference
Like The Wire, The Deuce has a more diverse cast than most TV shows. It tells stories about gay life in New York, which is certainly welcome. (If there were no such stories, it’d be a crippling omission.) But most notably, there are more female faces on The Deuce than there ever were on The Wire. As a result, the show’s successes and the occasional missteps tend to cluster around its explorations of women’s lives. Yes, most of The Deuce’s female characters are prostitutes, perhaps an unavoidable element for a show about the sex trade. But they’re not alone: It’s still satisfying to watch characters like Abby Parker (Margarita Levieva), a student turned barmaid, or Sandra Washington (Natalie Paul), a journalist who’s snooping around Times Square, even when their characters feel less fully realized than the prostitutes they consider with curiosity and contempt.
No, The Deuce is not The Wire. It never will be. Its focus is different, and it is distinctly its own show. If nothing else, there’s dramatically more James Franco than we ever saw in Baltimore. But so much of The Deuce feels the same — from its goals and strategies to its particular obsessions — that sometimes, you’ll swear Bunk is about to walk around the corner and shake his head sadly.