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HBO’s ‘The Deuce’ Dives Dark into Old Times Square
September 10, 2017  | By David Hinckley

HBO’s dark new series The Deuce reminds us again that there’s something dramatically irresistible about the Bad Old Days.

The Deuce, whose first eight-episode season premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, dives into the grimy, menacing world of Times Square in the early 1970s, when the porn and sex industries were becoming ever-more-important economic engines.  

Created by David Simon and George Pelecanos, with some of the writing by Richard Price, The Deuce doesn’t suggest any of this was pretty or tidy.

It does suggest this was simply a reality for a whole lot of people and that its ripple effects were profound, affecting everything from multimillion-dollar real estate markets to drugs to organized crime.

The Deuce’s specific story, wisely, revolves around a group of everyday folks who became part of the story, and in the process helped write it.

At the center, we have twin brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino, both played by James Franco (top).

Vinny is a bartender, a mostly honest guy trying to make a mostly honest living so he can support his wife and their two kids.

Frankie is a two-bit hustler always working an angle and usually losing. It’s only a matter of time, we quickly realize, before people to whom Frankie owes a lot of money come around telling Vinny that Frankie’s debts have become his debts.

So now they have what Bruce Springsteen once called “debts no honest man can pay” and they accept employment from some persuasive folks who need frontmen to help solidify their stake in those emerging porn, sex, and drug industries.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, we meet Eileen “Candy” Merrell (Maggie Gyllenhaal, left), that rare Times Square hooker who operates as an independent contractor without a pimp for protection.

Candy has a young son, who is being raised by her mother in a nice, clean, respectable home in Brooklyn. Candy takes great pains to keep her Times Square life separate from her visits there.

Candy is also a smart businesswoman, as she makes clear in a fascinating scene where she calmly explains the facts of prostitution to a naïve teenage client.

As the porn biz moves from the shadows toward budding legality, Candy sees an opening to cash in and maybe as a bonus spend less time on the mean streets.

The Deuce introduces a whole stable of female sex workers and spools their stories out gradually. There’s Lori (Emily Meade, below), for instance, who gets off the bus from Minnesota and isn’t quite as clean-cut as she seems.  

With hookers come pimps, who can be as vicious and intimidating as their reputation suggests, but who also get moments when they can reveal a more human side.

The opening scene of the first episode has the superfly C.C. (Gary Carr, left) talking Vietnam with his pal Reggie. Reggie tells C.C. that President Nixon knows exactly what he’s doing when he resumes heavy bombing or sends troops into Cambodia because the only way to win is to make the other side think you’re crazy.

Nixon would have appreciated that kind of support.

Speaking of the human side, Vinny soon finds his marriage crumbling, which doesn’t come as any shock. Because he works seven nights a week, his wife gets bored, leaves the kids with her mother and steps out. Vinny seems upset by this, except he does the same thing himself. At first, it’s a coworker, and then he runs into an NYU student, Abby (Margarita Levieva).

They hit it off. And what we already know is that Abby pays part of her NYU tuition by working as a call girl on the side. So you can see where she could be a fit as Vinny’s career evolves into its new phase.

The tone of The Deuce starts out ominous and stays that way. The streets and the bars are places of menace, where danger and intimidation are a given, and no one seems to have any expectation that the cops or the law can help.

Within that tense framework, the characters carve out day-to-day lives, figuring out how to work the rules and avoid the really dangerous spots.   

The Deuce recreates the Old Times Square vividly, reminding everyone that today’s glittery tourist mecca not so long ago felt like an urban frontier town.

The vintage cars, the vintage music, and the cultural trappings of the day, including banter about the war, feel true. Franco, Gyllenhaal, and the other actors put on the hard shells that enable their characters to survive and maybe find the occasional pleasure here and there.

It isn’t always fun to watch. But as quality drama, The Deuce mostly comes up aces.

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