The Deuce Series-Premiere Recap: If There’s a Hell Below

The Deuce

Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: HBO

The Deuce opens on a dark, quiet night in Brooklyn. A car pulls up outside of a dingy bar. We push into the bar through a window to find it mostly empty, save for a man and a woman lustfully flirting near the entrance (“Give me something I can’t get at home,” he whispers in her ear.) The barman, Vincent (James Franco), diligently counts the day’s take, closes up, and makes the drop in the safe-deposit box across the street. Two thugs get out of the car and try to rob Vincent. Even though they’re too late, they still threaten him at gunpoint and give him a nasty cut on his forehead. He returns home to his mother-in-law watching a blaring television while his two kids are asleep upstairs; Vincent’s wife parties at all hours of the night. He tries to get out of work at his second job the next morning, but his boss doesn’t believe getting held up is an acceptable excuse. As Vincent oversees a liquor delivery just past the break of dawn, a prostitute passes by him and they exchange words about his cut. This is New York City, 1971.

This pre-credits sequence lays out ideas that series creators George Pelecanos and David Simon will inevitably explore in The Deuce. In just five minutes, we’re privy to a series of images that not only recur throughout this sprawling pilot, but also establish the overt desires and underlying beliefs that pervade the series. There are the obvious ones like sex, money, and violence, but then there are others: fractured home lives, the omnipresence of TV, economic exploitation, the nascent ills of late capitalism, and, most notable, the unity between workers operating in society’s margins. It’s a bold sequence, one that illustrates a lot without ever announcing itself. Simon and Pelecanos have employed this thematic stratagem before, especially on The Wire, but it’s particularly potent here because The Deuce is something of a high-wire balancing act. It’s provocative but not titillating, expansive but tightly focused, raw yet welcoming.

The pilot mostly succeeds, but its rough edges emerge as it establishes something like 12 major characters, many of whom operate within separate communities. There are the pimps, which include C.C. (Gary Carr), superficially amiable but with a violent streak; Larry Brown (Gbenga Akinnagbe), an intimidating presence who apparently “raises up quick”; and Rodney (Method Man), just Method Man. There are the sex workers like Lori (Emily Meade), the new girl from Minnesota who jumps on the corner quick, and Darlene (Dominique Fishback), a sweet-natured veteran who hosts regulars with interests ranging from 1930s Dickens film adaptations to rape play. Then there’s Abby (Margarita Levieva), a smarter-than-thou NYU student whose interests go beyond the classroom; NYPD patrolman Chris Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), who has the ear of the community; Vincent’s wife, Andrea (Zoe Kazan); Vincent’s lover, Ellen (Amber Skye Noyes), and so on.

In typical Simon-Pelecanos fashion, we’re getting a lot of names and faces, but the pilot adopts such a measured pace that everyone gets to make an impression. It accomplishes this by capturing each character in a glimpse, usually in the midst of their work or an action that neatly defines them: C.C. and his colleague Reggie Love (Tariq Trotter) scoping out new talent at the Port Authority; Abby sleeping with her logic professor and then sassing his postcoital guilt; Darlene watching a whole movie on TV with a middle-aged client who just wants the company. These characters are inextricable from their work and their institutional masters, so much of The Deuce pilot features people either hustling to survive or savoring the moments in between when they can catch their breaths.

James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing three characters between them, are the closest thing to “leads” in this ensemble-driven series. Franco plays Vincent and Frankie Martino, twin brothers, the former on the relative straight-and-narrow and the latter up to his neck in enemies and gambling debts. Franco has always been a hit-or-miss actor, one who frequently coasts on charm, but he’s keyed-in here, especially when it comes to the Vincent role. He imbues Vincent with a lived-in disappointment, a sense of low-burn frustration at never being able to make a mark because he’s too busy trying to stay afloat. There’s a scene when Vincent tries to take his wife away from a pool hall frequented by mobsters, but is stopped by a crew that casually taunts him. Vincent’s silent, hurt reaction to this humiliation feels like a legitimate step forward for Franco as an actor, demonstrating his ability to play down instead of vying for attention. Meanwhile, Frankie is something of a caricature in the pilot, a riff on Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy from Mean Streets, but Franco nevertheless sells his charisma well enough to keep him interesting. It’s just clear that Franco doesn’t have to reach with Frankie, while he has to dig deep for Vincent.

Finally, we get to Gyllenhaal’s Candy, an independent sex worker with an entrepreneurial spirit and endless wisdom. She works her corner, keeps her own books, and operates as a free-floating member of the street community. Gyllenhaal has the toughest role by far, and she nails it in the pilot, maneuvering between authoritative, seductive, aloof, and vulnerable. She achieves this almost immediately in Candy’s first scene, as she rebuffs Rodney’s professional advances, but she really shines in the episode’s standout sequence with a virginal young student named Stuart (Russell Posner). After paying for a date, Stuart nervously follows Candy up to a hotel room where she gently shows him the ropes, so to speak. She fellates him and Stuart finishes quickly. When she refuses to go again unless he pays more, he balks, suggesting that it’s not fair she gets paid the same regardless of how long the customer lasts. Gyllenhaal’s finest moment comes when Candy responds to this remark, explaining how she treats her job no differently than anyone else, in a knowing, authoritative manner that never belies her prior tenderness. There’s never a moment when she “switches” between two personas; it’s all just one person, with various facets of a complex personality.

The other major character in the episode, if you can excuse the cliché, is Times Square, circa ‘71. Simon and Pelecanos never give the area a grand introduction precisely because doing so would be antithetical to the very setting. Instead, they simply luxuriate in the grime and the glitz. Production designer Beth Mickle provides a look of authenticity, but also an indefinable raw edge to every storefront and dark corner, as if danger or opportunity could be hiding anywhere. But mostly, it’s a convenient hub that brings together all of society, from the lowlifes to high society. There’s no better illustration of that than the theater marquees hanging above the characters’ heads: one advertises Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, while the next promotes John Waters’ Mondo Trasho. Both cinematic classics in their own right, but indicative of a divide in “good taste.”

Though the pilot mostly serves as an introduction to the ensemble and the nature of various relationships — Vincent and Frankie, C.C. and his girls, Abby and Vincent, etc. — it also establishes one of the primary concerns of the series: What does it mean when an economy thrives on flattening emotion into a transaction? We frequently see how desire, lust, greed, and entertainment get mixed up on the streets and in the bars, and yet the people in power easily reduce all those complex feelings into an simple exchange. Simon and Pelecanos never once condescend to the lives of sex workers nor their choice of profession, nor do they shy away from their exploitation by their pimps. It’s the same exploitation that Vincent suffers at the hands of his bosses, his brother, and the mob, though by different means. The capitalist critique is no less potent for being obvious, especially given the panoramic approach Simon and Pelecanos adopt to illustrate its toxic reaches.

The Deuce embodies both the national malaise and the paranoia of a Lindsay-era New York, demonstrating how everyone rubs elbows with muck. Vincent can leave his wife and become a manager at a Korean joint, but he’s still living in a crappy hotel where he can hear C.C. violently threaten one of his girls. Abby may live in the comforts of an NYU dorm, but she still has to go to Hell’s Kitchen to get speed. Danger and safety live side by side. Everything is up for grabs. As Curtis Mayfield sings, “They say, ‘Don’t worry,’ but they don’t know.”

The Deuce Series-Premiere Recap: If There’s a Hell Below