Nostalgia for New York’s most decrepit years is a dangerous drug in film and tv. It emboldens creators, convincing them any half-assed idea they’ve got lying around can be brilliant if they drop it into a setting full of garbage fires, addicts and porno theatres. A simple look back at recent heavily hyped failures like Vinyl and The Get Down shows how bad it can get out here for a director or a showrunner when you’re too busy mainlining archival photos for reference to remember to get around to whatever the point of your opus is. The first glimpses of The Deuce gave me ample reason to believe showrunners David Simon and George Pelecanos were in danger of overdosing on New York nostalgia- every preview focused as much on the old glowing grime of Times Square XXX marquees as it did James Franco’s twin moustaches and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s streetwalker costume. But the pilot offers some reassurance that Simon and Pelecanos have a better tolerance than their peers and beneath the frequently blunt, oversaturated visuals, lurks a more unique kind of work.
The obvious connection to be made is Simon and Pelecanos’ collaboration on The Wire, where the city of Baltimore usually looked at least as raw and rotten as ’70s New York and the hustles were as complicated and everlasting. The Deuce already differentiates itself though by honing in on the monotony of its cast’s various hustles and the decidedly unromantic reasons they have for working them. Gyllenhaal’s “Candy” is a handy case in point, an expat from the suburbs who sends her money back home to her mom to help care for her child while she hooks. The show doesn’t give any indication yet about why Candy is hiding out from what seems like a more stable life but her philosophy is summed up pretty well when a new recruit asks her why she doesn’t have a pimp. Candy explains that she might make less and have to be more careful, but at least she’s in control, something the newbie struggles to understand since for her, a pimp serves as motivation more than anything else.
For most of The Deuce’s characters, that need for independence and control is all-consuming. It’s certainly what drives Franco’s Vincent, a workaholic barman who refuses to get involved in his wife Andrea’s (Zoe Kazan) family business, with its mob connections and adherence to brotherhood and loyalty above all else. That business might be more lucrative than working seven days a week, hopping from one side of the river to another, but Vincent’s brother Frankie (also Franco) is already more family obligation than he can manage, particularly since Frankie’s gambling debts have put Vincent in the mob’s crosshairs anyway. Violence looms around Vincent- the show more or less starts with him getting mugged by deranged addicts- but it’s mostly kept in the background, creating tension by making us wonder how long it will be before Vincent’s anger and resentment collides with his building exhaustion and frustration.
Modern audiences having to work countless hustles of their own just to get by will find a lot to love in these two characters, even though they’re the least show-y elements of The Deuce. It’s not that they’re strong or clever, it’s the endurance they display that makes them interesting and by utilizing them as the anchor of the show, Simon and Pelecanos also get more of an impact out of their nostalgic backdrop. Like the New York setting they’re in, they’re in rough shape and seem hopeless, but we know New York got its shit together eventually and so it seems more likely these two will too.
The pimp ensemble surrounding them is more complicated, though. The Deuce doesn’t exactly romanticize any of the pimps in the pilot, but there’s a flamboyance to everything involving them that connects with the show’s blunt, neon visuals in a less interesting way. Early on, The Deuce introduces us to this world via a conversation between CC (Gary Carr) and Reggie Love (Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter), where Reggie compares Nixon’s approach to Vietnam to pimping and the necessity of instilling the fear of “acting crazy.” It’s a fun moment full of personality but it nonetheless clashes with the darker, subtler commentary the show makes on psychological abuse via this end of its world later on, particularly through the character of CC and the initial framing of him as a more sympathetic character.
That clumsiness is also present in everything involving Abby (Margarita Levieva), a college student who we first meet as she’s seducing her professor. Abby is likely intended to be seen as a strong, independent character but she really only serves as a prop to awkwardly remind us of the women’s lib movement then building up in culture. To a certain extent Abby’s general awkwardness is likely intentional- after all, her first extended bit of dialogue involves making fun of her professor hook-up’s O face and then emphasizing how ridiculous sex would be if it wasn’t so fun- but it makes for an extremely hollow, uninteresting character. Smarter college kids do pack a unique mix of confidence and naivety but where even the most minor of the pimp characters are given depth and natural dialogue, Abby seems designed as a preemptive defense accusations against feminist criticism of the show’s portrayal of women and sex workers.
And it is difficult to ignore the fact that so every single woman on the show exists as a sex object in some way, and this is likely to continue to be an issue based on the season preview’s focus on Vincent and Frankie’s immersion in the world of porn. The women who aren’t sex workers are either fantasy material for lonely professors, like Abby, or they’re like Vincent’s wife Andrea, who is called out as a slut by pretty much every single person who talks about her. In between are women like the fellow bartender Vincent is having an affair of his own with, whose chief purpose on the show is to fuck Vincent and make pouty eyes when he talks to any other woman.
If there’s an element of nostalgia that Simon and Pelecanos give in to to unfortunate effect on The Deuce it is this regressive portrayal of a time when men didn’t get called out as much for their bullshit. If The Deuce can work towards instilling the rest of its women characters with as much vitality and complexity as Candy, the representation issues could become less of a distraction, though it must be said a lot of why Candy works at all comes down to Gyllenhaal’s impressive, nuanced performance.
The show’s methodical pace and commitment to world building also gives ample reason to believe that even the most thinly developed pilot characters will eventually blossom into more captivating figures, a welcome break from the frenzied, poorly planned approach of its deceased predecessor Vinyl. Even if The Deuce never comes near the heights of The Wire (and how could it?), it’s already incredibly promising, breathing new life into a setting and time that a few generations of Martin Scorcese pretenders have nearly ruined.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover