The Deuce

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Pernell Walker, James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal star

The world of 1970s porn is the subject for David Simon’s new HBO series, The Deuce, which premiered on 26 September. Co-written with George Pelecanos, who also worked with Simon on The Wire, this semi-fictional dramatisation looks at the legalisation and rise of the porn industry in New York.

While the first season promises to look at themes such as the drug epidemic, associated violence and its impact on various communities, the pilot episode establishes the conditions of prostitution, women’s oppression and mob rule out of which the porn industry emerged.

Simon and Pelecanos’s newest creation was reportedly inspired by stories and characters told to them by a former mob front man for bars and massage parlours in 1970s Manhattan.

The first episode of the series introduces us to an array of vibrant characters. Twin brothers (both played by James Franco) Vincent, a bar manager struggling to make ends meet for his family, and Frankie, an inveterate gambler in debt to the mob, are central among them, as is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character, Eileen or “Candy”, a sex worker and mother who chooses to go it alone without a pimp.

The show pulls no punches regarding the brutality of women’s oppression. In one scene sex worker Darlene proudly explains to her pimp that having endured injury from violent role-play with a regular customer, she was able to up her price and so earn additional cash to hand over to her man. In another scene, CC, played by Gary Carr, cuts sex worker Ashley for daring to ask him for a night off to escape the pouring rain. New girl on the block Lori explains that she has to be pimped “or I get lazy”.

Complexities around oppression and the choices made by women in engaging with sexual exploitation are also addressed. NYU student Abby questions Vincent about forcing his bar staff to wear leotards in order to increase business, asking him how he thinks they feel about being objectified.

She also seduces her lecturer to secure a better exam grade and accepts a date with a cop to escape a charge after being caught buying drugs. In later episodes Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character will turn to the emergent porn industry as a way to escape the streets.

The show has been politically acclaimed, with Charles Bramesco giving it a five star review in the Guardian, writing that “Simon has created his most accessible work of humanism to date, and he’s done so without sacrificing his loftier ambitions of societal critique.”

However, at times the pilot episode feels gratuitous, with indulgence in lazy stereotypes of black pimps, “whores with a heart of gold” and Italian mobsters. And as with any Sky Atlantic show there are plenty of naked breasts. Nevertheless, as with The Wire, Simon’s interest in the socio-economic aspects of working class criminality promises to make this a show worth sticking with.