Sunday, September 10, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Deuce' - The Atmosphere of 1970s New York is Sleazy and Grim for an Ensemble of Characters in 'Pilot'

HBO's The Deuce - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

Twin brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino - one a double-shifting bartender with two kids and a wayward wife in Brooklyn, the second an insouciant gambler with piling mob debts - navigate their way through the rough-and-tumble world of 1971 Times Square.

This is such an atmospheric premiere for The Deuce. It's not rushing to tell a big story that reveals what it truly wants to be about right away. It's much more subtle and purposeful than that. It's instead set in a particular moment in time. It's the world of 1970s New York. That's a true identity that defines all of these characters. This is a sprawling ensemble with people from all different walks of life making a variety of different choices. That's not particularly surprising given the creative team involved. David Simon and George Pelecanos have frequently utilized a day-in-the-life of a wide array of characters in the stories that they tell. They all have different lives. And yet, they are connected through the environment that they inhabit. This particular environment brings sex to the forefront for all of them. There is no escaping it. It's around every street corner and defining every business. That's the world that these characters are a part of. It's a choice for some of them. They are making the conscious decision to use sex for their advantage in order to improve their lives. With others, it's the harsh reality of what their life has sunken too. This is the only life that they can have right now in order to make enough money to survive. It's a brutal story but it's very effectively told across these opening 90 minutes. It's very compelling to watch even though so much of it is purely in introductory mode at the moment.

It's also surprising to see how a couple of the big promotional hooks of the show are very minor details in this premiere. The Deuce has always been billed as the story of the rise of the porn industry in 1970s New York. That's not a story in this extended episode at all though. It's clear that that's what all of this is building towards. But there's no indication over who is going to get into that industry or why. Right now, it's just important to get into the mindsets of all of these characters. The premiere is revealing the choices that they are making in their lives right now. That's very fascinating and will make it even more rewarding once the show does become what that promotion has always promised. Furthermore, The Deuce has been promoted as a show where James Franco plays twin brothers. It seems like the latest crazy stunt he has done in a project just to make it seem more interesting than it actually is. And yet, that's a very subtle and subdued part of this premiere. In fact, most of the story only revolves around one of the brothers, Vincent. The other, Frankie, is only barely seen though it's clear that he is causing so many problems. It makes it seem as if Franco is playing the lead of the show while also playing another very minor supporting character. It's a fascinating creative decision. Perhaps Frankie will be seen more in the future and allow the audience to understand his perspective as well. But right now, Vincent is the more compelling character of the two solely because his internal life is shown throughout this premiere.

However, it's significant that Franco's presence as two characters isn't overwhelming to the rest of the ensemble. This is still a story told about many different people spread out in this one environment. It's set in a time where they are all connected. They often know each other by name because of a long history. That allows this premiere to already have a lived-in quality to it. It feels like these characters have known each other for a long time and have been doing these jobs for awhile. This isn't the first time that Vincent has been upset that his wife is out enjoying the town and leaving her mother to care for the two children. It's probably not the last either even though Vincent says that he is done with her for good now. This also doesn't seem like the first time Frankie's debts have caused problems for Vincent. He's always being mistaken for his brother who has gotten into some kind of new trouble with the local mobsters. He's always being asked to pay for the debts. Now, he finds himself indebted to a gangster for $20,000. He's going to figure out a way to pay for it. But he has to ask for leniency and respect for the whole process because he can only scrap together so much in a week. Even though he's seemingly doing a good job at this business and is a friendly face to the customers, he's still just barely surviving in this world.

The same is also true for Maggie Gyllenhaal's Eileen aka Candy. She isn't brand new to selling her body for sex on the street. She's been at this game for awhile. She stands out because she isn't the property of any pimp. She's doing this all by herself. That comes with several advantages and disadvantages. She gets to keep all of the money that she makes. That will allow her to support the family she only occasionally gets to see. But it also means she has to be more careful. This is a dangerous business too. All it takes is one guy getting violent with her for all of this to go horribly awry somehow. She needs to be more cautious. It's mostly just refreshing that she's not disillusioned to what this actually is. She approaches this as her job. She needs to stick to the rules in order to make a living at it. For a show about sex, the act itself isn't depicted as sensational or titillating. When a car pulls up, it's Candy's job to appease the customer and give them what they pay for. It's not any more or less than that. She's encouraging along the way. But once the man reaches climax, that's all that he has paid for. There's no special deals just because the guy is celebrating a birthday. This is the approach Candy has to this business which is very sensible. But it's still depressing to see her in this profession while also seeing the cost it does to her humanity. Her father clearly doesn't approve and she's missing her son grow up because of it. All she gets is a few fleeting moments with him in secret.

Franco and Gyllenhaal are obviously the big film actors who bring a sense of gravitas and legitimacy to this project. And yet, they are still just a few pieces to the overall ensemble nature of this show. This hour is truly captivating because of its depiction of this world. It doesn't cover up just how grimy and dirty this world actually was. It's a far cry from the Times Square of today's society. And yet, this wasn't all that long ago either. When Vincent has the idea to dress his female bartenders in leotards, he treats it as a revolutionary concept even though modern audiences have seen how the perception of sex can really be used to sell anything nowadays. That's the purpose of this story as well. Sex is always on the mind of all of the characters. Vincent does this in order to bring more customers into the bar without betraying the owners' wishes to keep prostitution out of the place. Local college student Abby has sex with her professor and is then caught by the police trying to buy drugs. That's her entry point into this world. It's an eye-opening experience for her that pulls her in because it's so different but intriguing. Lori is completely new to town but very willing to walk the streets selling her body for a pimp. She's too lazy to succeed in this business otherwise. She seemingly has a good deal going to. The pimps seem like complicated characters. C.C. and Larry are very loving to the women who work for them. They encourage them to be their best selves. And yet, they are still very demanding pimps who force their girls to be working at all times and bringing in as much money as possible. Again, this is a business. It's sick and twisted. The show doesn't hide from the harsh realities of that. Nor does it actually glorify the violence. All of this is building to a twisted ending of a pimp brutally cutting one of his girls to keep her in line. It's terrifying. But it's used to reveal new details about the characters associated with it. It proves that pimps are violent and terrifying while Vincent would rather just avoid the situation altogether instead of stepping up to be a hero.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by David Simon & George Pelecanos and directed by Michelle MacLaren.
  • Because of the sprawling ensemble, I can already tell you that I'm going to confuse characters and not know most of their names for most of the season. That's the cost of doing business in this medium sometimes. It's definitely an effective approach to this story. It's just a lot to keep track of and be aware of in the early going.
  • Gary Carr is definitely having some fun playing C.C. He's an incredibly dapper man who enjoys the luxurious items his lifestyle can afford. He walks around with a cane and loves talking about his Cadillac. But as Candy and her friend point out to Lori, he's a pimp just like the rest of them. He may like Lori now, but he can turn on her very quickly too.
  • Abby is obviously very smart. She's teasing her professor both in the classroom and when he climaxes during sex. And yet, she proves that she is still actually paying attention to the lessons. It makes her an interesting character. At first, she seems to want to distance herself from the drugs her friends are interested in taking. But then, she's very intrigued by Vincent's world and prefers that over the classroom.
  • Detective Flanagan is very much a creepy patrolman who abuses his power in order to keep Abby around him for as long as possible. He offers to drive her home but stops at Vincent's bar along the way in the hopes of turning it into something more. It doesn't work. Plus, Vincent and Abby are able to laugh about it together. Abby is honest with Vincent in a way that she isn't to the person who is suppose to uphold the law.
  • The family of Vincent's wife has some sketchy mob ties as well. It's a life Vincent has chosen to avoid. He's wanted to make an honest living to provide for his family. He's working every day of the week to support his children. And yet, he's a little hypocritical as well because he's fucking around too just like his wife is. But he still refuses to come home because he is done with putting up with the stress of their marriage.
  • Another standout performance comes from Dominique Fishback as Darlene. She was great on Simon's other HBO series, Show Me a Hero. And now, it's just so moving to watch her sit and watch A Tale of Two Cities alongside her paying John. She's getting into the film and saddened by the tragedy of it all. Meanwhile, her tragedy is fearing what her pimp will do to her because she is running late with his payment.