'The Deuce': TV Review

So far, so very good.

James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal lead the remarkable ensemble of David Simon and George Pelecanos' entertaining and substantive HBO drama about sex and power in 1971 Manhattan.

In many ways, The Deuce represents the logical and satisfying culmination of David Simon's HBO journey from The Corner through The Wire and Treme. Long fascinated with the way that institutions grind down individuals and the citizenry, turning people and neighborhoods into statistics and commodities, Simon and co-creator George Pelecanos are able to use the New York City sex trade in the early 1970s to explore the exploitation of the human body itself.

A gritty, grimy (but rarely grim) tapestry of pimps and hoes, cops and pornographers, feminists and misogynists, crusaders and deadbeats, The Deuce has a lower intimidation threshold than Simon's last HBO project, the tremendous and tremendously wonky public housing miniseries Show Me a Hero, but it still balances the salacious with the journalistically inquisitive. It's another Simon drama that's a discipline-spanning sociological treatise on one level and a showcase for dozens of memorable, colorful characters on another. After watching the full eight-episode first season, which premieres on September 10, most of my complaints boil down to wishing The Deuce had at least five more episodes in which to let rapidly unfolding storylines breathe a bit more.

The show's initial point-of-entry is twin brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino (both James Franco). Vincent is ultra-trustworthy and responsible by standards that allow him to be a little bit of a progressive white knight, while also abandoning his kids and philandering wife (Zoe Kazan) early on with no serious audience repercussions. Frankie is a hot-headed vagabond who thinks nothing of running up gambling debts that fall on his brother. Their respective skills quickly make them valuable to Rudy Pipilo (Michael Rispoli), a Gambino capo who brings the Martinos into an ambitious, morally murky business plan for the 42nd Street area involving bars, massage parlors and sex shops.

The "James Franco plays twin brothers in a '70s porn drama" hook will lure some viewers in (and scare a few viewers off), but The Deuce is an ensemble and Frankie and Vincent stand out because they're played by the cast's biggest, most easily marketable actor and not because they're the show. To put it in The Wire terms, they're double-McNulty, a good star surrounded by countless juicier character roles. Vincent and Frankie share a mustache and Franco differentiates them effectively in small ways, via the wild glint in Frankie's eyes or the weary disapproval in Vincent's mien. Perhaps because Franco also had to be behind the camera directing two episodes, you never feel like the Martinos are dominating the screen and, as such, it's a perfect performance; you're glad when he's around and rarely miss him when he isn't.

There's too much happening in The Deuce to give more than a cursory plot summary. Maggie Gyllenhaal is probably the second lead after Franco as Eileen, who walks the streets under the name Candy, suffering indignities in order to support a son who lives with his grandmother. Eileen takes an interest in the pre-Deep Throat world of adult cinema and the greatness of Gyllenhaal's performance is in the contrasts she's able to convey between Candy's fatigued-but-talented professionalism, Eileen's growing desperation to change her life and her captivated zeal for the world of adult movies and the control she thinks it might offer her.

Candy works without a manager, which frustrates the various pimps, including Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe), Rodney (Cliff "Method Man" Smith) and C.C. (Gary Carr), and makes her a curiosity and inspiration for the sex workers, including fresh-off-the-bus Lori (Emily Meade) and inquisitive Darlene (Dominique Fishback).

And then there are the police officers, going between benign neglect, superficial enforcement and criminal collusion at a moment when the NYPD was under scrutiny for corruption. Officers Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) and Flanagan (Don Harvey) are central to that storyline, especially once Sandra (Natalie Paul), a reporter with an interest in the call girls, catches Alston's eye.

Some viewers will find the nudity, sex and, in particular, sexual violence to be barriers to entry for The Deuce, but like most Simon stories, the series is about power; the intermingling of sexual power and financial power is the text of the show. An early conversation between two pimps comparing their workplace approaches to Richard Nixon's carrot/stick incentivizing sets up a juxtaposition between how those with institutional clout and those who work outside of the system exert control in similar ways. The same is true of figures of authority, with law enforcement and criminal elements meting out punishment and offering protection in comparable fashion. As always, it's the exchange of money that drives everything, whether enterprises are entirely legitimate, organized rackets or in a state of flux because the courts are deciding minute-by-minute what is and isn't allowed (and the smart operators are the ones preparing to capitalize on every new loophole or opportunity). The characters in The Wire made cool, glib references to "the game," even as viewers were aware of the life-and-death stakes of the drug trade — and The Deuce is similarly enticing when it comes to documenting the swagger and glib cleverness of jive-talking pimps and sassy hookers, without ever ignoring the parasitic repugnance and frequent human misery of it all.

The world of The Deuce is often only a step up from the sewer, and led by pilot director Michelle MacLaren and cinematographers Pepe Avila del Pino and Vanja Cernjul, the show avoids being one of those period pieces in which every car looks new and every costume seems straight off the rack. The aromas of body odor, cheap cologne, garbage, cigarette smoke and inconsistently used disinfectant pervade every frame and unlike Vinyl, which will probably be a frequent point of comparison before people watch The Deuce, this new drama only sometimes becomes excessively enamored with nostalgic glamour. There's some nerdy excitement at the quality of the movies on the various marquees or the name-dropping of the occasional pre-iconic band, but this isn't a show that forgets the disillusionment of the moment for the low-income characters struggling to make ends meet and to be heard in a variety of civil rights struggles.

It's a show about exploitation and it's a milieu that runs the risk of being treated exploitatively, but with MacLaren directing two episodes and Uta Briesewitz and Roxann Dawson directing others, you can see the effort to not leer at the frequently exposed skin or, at the very least, never lose the context in which the skin is being bared. Anything that threatens to be sexy is only sexy to the point at which you spot the mildew on the walls, hear the sirens out the window, recognize the scary hunger in a john's expression or get any other reminder of the business transaction at hand.

The cast is tremendous, pulling from every corner of Simon's repertory company with the previously mentioned names plus the likes of Chris Bauer, Anwan Glover, Michael Kostroff and Chris Coy. Standouts in a group with no bad performances include the sweetly vulnerable Fishback, amiably well-meaning Gillard, darkly intense Akinnagbe and the spectacular Carr, whose suave-but-chilling C.C. may be the show's breakout character. David Krumholtz steals scenes as a limitedly artistic adult filmmaker and Margarita Levieva, whose student-turned-barmaid Abby is one of the show's more conventional characters, burns up the screen. Meade, Method Man, Jamie Neumann, Mustafa Shakir and even, beginning what may be his great comeback, Ralph Macchio all shine.

There are too many great things in The Deuce for them all to be serviced in eight hours and that's the show's weakness, such as it is. When a storyline like Officer Alston's arc with reporter Sandra feels rushed, that's a minor disappointment. There's a lot of hasty narrative here. It's worse when you sense that a couple of emotional beats with different prostitutes might have landed harder if we'd gotten a few more establishing scenes with the characters in earlier episodes.

That need for more is pervasive. We've only begun to get names, much less backstories and motivations, for some characters. The mob stuff is very familiar and needs more depth if they want me to think it's essential. At times I felt like I only understood what was happening with the cops because I'd seen The Wire and I've seen Serpico. Coy's character, a bartender who was at Stonewall, keeps the show's focus from feeling exclusively heterosexual, but the still-criminalized emerging gay underground is underserved.

Simon and Pelecanos are just beginning to put the machinery of The Deuce into motion in these eight episodes. As an opening act, the show's first season is substantive, provocative and entertaining. It's a journey through a certain kind of hell, but I'm already eager to return.

Network: HBO

Cast: James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Chris Bauer, Gary Carr, Chris Coy, Dominique Fishback, Lawrence Gillard, Jr., Margarita Levieva, Emily Meade, Natalie Paul, Michael Rispoli

Creators: David Simon and George Pelecanos

Directors: Michelle MacLaren, James Franco, Ernest Dickerson, Alex Hall, Uta Briesewitz, Roxann Dawson.

Airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO premiering September 10.