David Simon's 'The Deuce' Defines Dickensian TV
Dickensian—a literary term meant to evoke the broad and thorough treatment of social classes in the novels of Charles Dickens—is a term that has become increasingly deployed in television, especially for David Simon. Simon, the creator of The Wire, has shifted the focus of his talents from early aughts Baltimore to late 70s New York, attaching a meticulous magnifying glass to the roaming gaze of a skeptical local in his latest endeavor, The Deuce.
A once popular nickname for the area between 7th and 8th Avenue on Manhattan’s 42nd Street—now almost unrecognizable thanks to the saturation of LED screens and big brand stores in modern Times Square—The Deuce follows a disparate cast of characters all connected to the rapidly evolving sex trade in the City That Never Sleeps. On the trajectory from street prostitutes and caned pimps to the proliferation of free online pornography, Simon lingers on the complex and, in their own ways, sympathetic characters of prostitutes, pimps, cops, Mafiosos, and bar keepers on every end of the beams of power, money, and influence that support and contain America’s repressed sexuality.
The stars of the show are worth the billing: Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Eileen, a prostitute with greater ambitions who goes by “Candy” on the streets. And as if one James Franco wasn’t enough, there are two of him: Vinny and Frank Martino, twin brothers who define each other by opposition. Vinny tries to be a responsible bar keep and family man, without much luck with the latter, serving as the moral compass of the show. Franco 2.0, Frank, is a hustler who washes up on his brother’s radar due to life threatening debt to the mafia, which ultimately leverages Vinny into serving as a sort of contractor for one of the city’s Five Families—first with a bar, the “Hi Hat,” and later in a de facto brothel.
Beyond the top billing of Gyllenhaal and Franco(s), Margarita Levieva and Emily Meade deliver formidable breakout performances as a college dropout and rookie prostitute, respectively. Levieva charms Vinny enough to “go steady” with him as she wages her contradictory crusade against her old money roots, while Meade finds early success on the streets only to see its horrors—often revolving around her scheming and loquacious pimp, played with clinical and often scene-stealing execution by Gary Carr—only to find what could be deliverance with the rising ambitious of Candy.
While The Deuce certainly lives up to its Dickensian moniker, from developing a literal good-cop-bad-cop duo of Lawrence Gillard Jr. and Don Harvey to a mob boss (Michael Rispoli) and even an earnest journalist in the consistently illuminating performance of Natalie Paul—the evolution of Gyllenhaal’s character is not only the most compelling in the series, but most certainly the most revelatory of its overall subject.
Candy slowly begins rediscovering herself as Eileen, and while she remains coy about what got her into the sex trade in the first place, she never displays any shame. Upon meeting a portly and laconic porn director (David Krumholtz), Eileen begins to see a future for herself in the porn industry—not just as on-camera talent, but also behind the camera as an art director or even a director herself. Episode Seven serves as a remarkable encapsulation of this metamorphosis as Eileen rescues a dismal shoot from the brink by injecting raw passion into the sex and a keen sense of aesthetics onto the set.
The Deuce unflinchingly shows the explicit and often physical denigration of women, but it also treats them as more than just an oppressed demographic. While Simon and his writers resist a simple narrative of gender progress, there is nonetheless a satisfying sensation in seeing Gyllenhaal sitting in the director’s chair in full costume.
Sparingly, Eileen’s son is shown. He is under the illusion that she has a serious executive job that requires her to be away from home for weeks at a time, while Eileen’s mother takes care of him. There also appears to be a crazy brother in the mix for Eileen, which may or may not be developed into a reason why she joined the sex trade in the first place. More often than not with Simon, no detail goes without a follow-up, even if it takes a few episodes or even a few seasons.
The other most eye-opening aspect of the show is the treatment of the pimps, who are mostly shown either congregating in a diner to get the count of the previous night’s fees or in their lavish cars—where there is probably money being counted as well. The pimps treat their women terribly, but they are nonetheless shown to be complex characters with their own internal quandries beyond the contemporary notion of “fragile and toxic masculinity.” With a crackdown by cops on the take that forces most prostitution on 42nd street indoors (enter James Franco x2 and Wire alumnus Chris Bauer with the brothel, euphemistically called a “parlor”), the pimps have a frank and quasi-philosophical conversation about what their purpose and identity are going forward.
“We’ve become extraneous in this whole situation,” Carr says as CC, perhaps the most ruthless and cunning pimp of the bunch. “The pussy is still the pussy, the money is still the money, but the pimp? Who the fuck is he right now?”
The Deuce moves effortlessly enough between the knitty gritty of each character’s specific circumstances that it becomes easy to miss the philosophical questions posed less explicitly. Ultimately, whether one identifies with Maggie Gyllenhaal or the James Franco of your choice—not to mention the cops and pimps—the real question this show asks is, who we are as sexual beings?
An equally important question that Simon has wrestled with in interviews since the show, such as with The New Yorker’s David Remnick, is what the proliferation of online pornography has done to men in the 21st Century. One cannot help but let that question linger in the background as the foreign sight of 1970s Times Square imposes itself—without the big screen and M&Ms store, which are replaced with phone booth blowjobs and prostitutes in myriad mink coats.