“The Deuce” pilot creates a captivating universe for seedy New York

Maggie Gyllenhaal, left, and James Franco, right, attend the premiere of the HBO Original Series "The Deuce" at the SVA Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, in New York. (Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

HBO’s new show “The Deuce” aired its pilot episode this past Sunday and it is must-watch television. The show takes place in Times Square circa 1971, when the area was a seedy underworld of bars, prostitutes and peep shows. Vincent and Frankie Martino, both played by James Franco, are the center of the show. The latter is a mysterious gambling addict in deep with the mob and Vincent is a struggling bartender forced to get his brother out of the hole.

This show caught my eye because it is created and written by David Simon, who was behind fellow HBO production “The Wire,” which became a classic in the years since its release. Simon does not create television shows, but television worlds. In “The Wire,” it felt like the show had a bird’s eye view of all of Baltimore’s drug business, from the street level to the federal level. With “The Deuce,” Simon is turning back the clocks and changing vices from drug dealing to prostitution, but the feeling that we are observing the entire world is still present, and what a world it is. The CGI used to make modern day New York look like the 1970s is worth a watch by itself, and the costuming and makeup are fantastic. This is not the 1970s of “American Hustle,” but a far grittier look at the time period.

This pilot episode was dominated by “the hustle.” The characters in the show are backed into a corner and must find an angle to get themselves out of the bind. After an introduction to the main character, Vincent, we get a conversation with two pimps talking about Nixon’s “hustle” in Vietnam and how he should dangle the carrot of peace in front of the enemy but make them think he will drop an A-bomb on them at any time. This gives the audience an idea of how these pimps make a living: by promising young, naive girls pretty clothes and fancy cars, but behind the curtain, pressuring them with the threat of violence. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character, Eileen, pursues a different but effective hustle by pimping herself out and not relying on a man to earn her a living. Constantly strapped for cash, Vincent must find innovative ways to get people into his bar past midnight and has to resort to desperate measures to do so.

“The Deuce” steers clear of any predetermined plotlines of a show regarding pimps and prostitutes, constantly keeping the audience guessing. When the police come upon the show’s trio of main pimps, we do not get any confrontation between the groups, but a casual conversation that only serves as character building. This patience early on, and focus on character over conflict, is common to Simon’s work. “The Wire” was an extremely slow burn and built its world over seasons, but that could have been a product of a different time in television.

Along with many other networks, the length of HBO’s series’ and the number of episodes within them have decreased in recent years. Whether because of a quality-over-quantity debate or an increase in film’s influence on the industry, this change makes it less likely to see the kind of pacing we are getting with “The Deuce.” A show like “Vinyl,” which was cancelled after its first season, went the opposite direction, with its two-hour pilot featuring a bludgeoning at the end of its huge runtime. Hopefully Simon can buck this trend and give the full scope of 1970s New York City because is so much there to dive into. “The Deuce” airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on HBO.


Teddy Craven is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.craven_jr@uconn.edu.