Journalist-turned-TV producer David Simon is particularly good at two things: exposing the mindless, brutal institutions and systems that grind many Americans down, and humanizing people who normally exist at the margins of polite conversation.
When Simon tackled those subjects in HBO's The Wire, he created one of the best series on television. Now he's created the best new show of the 2017 fall season in HBO's The Deuce (debuting Sunday), a gritty, urban drama about the moment pornography became "street legal" in New York City, and the commodification of flesh became an industry. (Ed. note: This is a show about pornography, so, as you might expect, this review discusses adult themes.)
The setting for Simon's latest urban fable is 1970s Times Square, before the days of Disney stores and chain restaurants. This is back when streetwalkers worked "The Deuce" (slang for West 42nd Street in Midtown) accepting occasional police roundups and overnight stays in a holding cell as the cost of doing business.
Because it's Simon (working with Wire buddies like crime novelist Richard Price and Deuce co-creator George Pelecanos) the world created here is so accurately run-down and sleazy you want to take a shower after every episode. Prostitutes give oral sex in phone booths and cops shrug when they have a night where there's only a couple of rapes in the neighborhood. In one impressive wide shot, a character walks across a sprawling street filled with period-specific cars as the city skyline rises in the distance, looking exactly like the time of John Lindsay and Max's Kansas City.
The show is also loosely based on reality, inspired by the real-life stories of two twin brothers who served as frontmen for the Gambino crime family in Manhattan. James Franco plays fictionalized versions of both men — Vincent, a straight-shooting bar manager, and Frankie, a charismatic, degenerate gambler. Vincent starts out as a typical Simon protagonist: He's smart, working-class, unassuming and more than a little flawed, ground-down by two thankless jobs and a wayward wife. Opportunity comes knocking when a Gambino captain sets him up to run his own bar.