'The Deuce' Season 2: TV Review

The novelistic approach just gets better.

The returning HBO series continues its deep dive into grimy New York and the burgeoning porn industry with a potent attention to detail.

As HBO's elite but overlooked series The Deuce returns for its second season, fans will notice some subtle and not so subtle changes. The clothes are slightly different, and bolder. There's a new vibe in the grimy New York of 42nd Street near Times Square — the deuce of the title — and the gold rush in sex for sale shows no sign of abating. There's been a five-year time leap from season one, to 1977, and the seediest section of the Big Apple has all its participants, from the gaudy to the ghostly, coming back for more.

With Elvis Costello's snarling "This Year's Girl" kicking things off (never mind that it came out in 1978 — the series will get there soon enough), we find Maggie Gyllenhaal's Candy sashaying down the block, having moved on from her pimp and prostitution into directing porn (with an overly artistic bent). The initial impression we get is that opportunity has morphed into money, and it's not just the men who are getting their slice.

But while opportunity knocks in the glam new world of DIY porn, even with feminist fringes, you know writers David Simon, George Pelecanos and Richard Price are not going to spin a fairy tale where it's Candy's land for the taking. They are going to get at the seedy transactional underbelly of the booming industry, because The Deuce has always been about the toll the life takes, particularly for women, even when business has never been better.

As early episodes keenly make the point that sweet-talking pimps don't lure wayward Midwestern girls into porn anymore — they are arriving on their own precisely to join that gold rush — two clear concepts are set up as foundations for the new season. One is that the country has changed in five years, or at least is letting sex and sexuality out of the shadows and into the light. Second, the era of the pimp is on the decline as indoor arcades and a blossoming Times Square porn industry have raised profits for everybody. No City Hall plan can curb the boom, a lot of cops are looking the other way, and the mob sees 42nd Street as a place to mint money.

There has always been a baked-in end date to The Deuce, as the time jumps that series creators Simon and Pelecanos imagined for it at the start will eventually trace the exodus of porn to the sunny climate of the Valley in Los Angeles and, one would think, the slow Disney-ification of Times Square into what it is now, a thriving tourist attraction where a separate capitalist gold rush pushed out those early, seedy settlers.

Until that time, however, The Deuce, with its brilliant writing, immersive atmosphere and uncommonly excellent acting, is exploring 1977. The four episodes that HBO sent for review reflect a more personal and interesting storyline for Gyllenhaal's Candy, who sees directing as a way to explore her creativity and climb another rung from the streets. You don't have to be aware of Simon and Pelecanos' affinity for realism to sense that this won't always go smoothly for her, but neither is her story devoid of hope. It becomes one of the less bleak rooting-interest elements of the series.

In the dual roles of Vincent and Frankie Martino (based on real-life twins), James Franco is playing characters who are operating more or less as they did when we last saw them. Frankie is still a screw-up — and offers the less interesting storyline of the two. Vincent remains the bartender with big dreams, though amid the booming porn trade he's feeling the pinch on all sides. The Deuce is often seen through the eyes of Vincent, who's connected to so many elements of the drama. He's the documentarian of that 42nd Street scene, and Franco goes deep into the doubts that set Vincent apart from the outsize New York bluster of brother Frankie.

Season two also delves into the struggle of pimps Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and C.C. (Gary Carr) with the porn success of Darlene (Dominique Fishback) and the even greater success — because she's white; racism is a continuing theme — of Lori (Emily Meade). The feeling that porn is going to upend the hierarchy is not lost on the two men, who are quickly on the outside looking in.

The evolution of Abby (Margarita Levieva), who remains in an open relationship with Vincent, grows more intriguing — not only because the series introduces a larger music-themed strand through her (more Costello and, among other gems, The Jam's "This Is the Modern World" snarling alongside the disco and funk that keep the soundtrack top-notch), but also because she's mixing with more of the women who seek to change sex-work dynamics. Other characters too push to play the game on their own terms, among them Paul (Chris Coy), who wants to expand his gay club further into the city and not pay for mob protection. Chris (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) remains the clean cop who can't imagine that the political impetus to clean up 42nd Street has any real chance, but some early, meager wins might change his mind.

Simon and Pelecanos have always employed a granular, no-angle-ignored storytelling approach. The rich detail can slow the pace, but the diligence pays off in an accurate, unflinching portrayal of the time. As it documents a changing New York City and details the cold inequities of sex workers along with the porn industry's economic rise, The Deuce is increasingly immersive, densely layered and intriguing all around — particularly when Gyllenhaal is on the screen.

It's stunning that Emmy voters didn't reward the show with any nominations, but in that sense not a lot has changed for Simon. Viewers who stay with the series, as with a good novel, are already reaping the rewards.

Cast: James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gbenna Akinnagbe, Gary Carr, Emily Meade, Dominique Fishback, Lawrence Gilliard, Jr., Chris Bauer, Chris Coy, Michael Rispoli, Natalie Paul, Luke Kirby, Jamie Neumann
Created by George Pelecanos, David Simon
Executive producers: Simon, Pelecanos, Franco, Richard Price, Nina Kostroff Noble, Michelle MacLaren
Premieres Sunday, 9 p.m. (HBO)