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Pictures of a Revolution

Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco are highlights, but the real star of  ‘The Deuce’ is the Rotten Apple, as David Simon and George Pelecanos bring the cultural upheaval and criminal enterprise of early ’70s New York City to life


I mostly know 1970s New York City from the the stacks of faded photographs my parents left strewn around our house in cupboards and boxes and drawers, like arrowheads and musket balls on an ancient battlefield. The great New York movies of the era—Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, The French Connection, Three Days of the Condor —informed me, too. But that came later. Mostly it’s the photographs.

My folks arrived in New York City from the Philippines in 1972, dressed, as far as I can tell, not unlike the characters from The Deuce, the prestige period grit-noir from David Simon and George Pelecanos, which premiered Sunday night on HBO (after airing for a bit on HBOGO). One notable snapshot finds them in front of the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows—my father sporting Jimmy Cliff’s look from The Harder They Come; my mother, arm resting cutely on her man’s shoulder, wearing a corduroy miniskirt, with a smile on her face that’s partially obscured by sunglasses the size of a diving mask.

They settled in Bayside. Their neighbors Fred, a city bus driver, and Lilly, a homemaker, both from Puerto Rico, became my godparents. Freddie, the bus driver, loves to tell the story of how he calmly talked a screwdriver-wielding fare-beater into leaving his bus. One of Mama Lilly’s favorite yarns involves a raucous escape from a movie theater after a rolling summer blackout snuffed a family outing to see The Poseidon Adventure. Fred and Lil moved their family to Bellerose. They had been there a couple of years when the Son of Sam shot two neighborhood teenagers as they chilled on a porch. New York Fucking City indeed.

It was a wild era in the Big Apple’s history, far removed from its (now-inevitable-seeming) post–Sex and the City turnaround. And it’s one I feel a tremendous ownership over. Despite only having experienced its ragged collection of historic lowlights and cultural highlights—the last Knicks title, garbage and transit strikes, Led Zeppelin at the Garden, crime, cheap rent, the flight of the middle-class whites to the suburbs, punk, Patti Smith, disco, political bombings, and Times Square as a sex-tourism destination—second- and third-hand. So watching The Deuce on my laptop in an office in Los Angeles in the year 2017, I was struck, mainly, by a feeling of relief. They got it right. You know, as far as I can tell.

The Deuce, set in New York City in 1971, is a Tolstoyian tale featuring a cavalcade of colorful riff-raff hustling their way through the core of the Rotten Apple. There’s twin brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino (both played by James Franco, who, to quote my colleague Sixers Fan Chris Ryan, is “on his Ratso Rizzo shit”). Vincent is a hardscrabble barman juggling two gigs, but just scraping by. Frankie is a grade-A degenerate skel who owes money to bookies across the city and ostensibly fled to ’Nam to avoid the reckoning. Various enforcers looking to collect are constantly mistaking Vinny for his brother in a plot that plays out like Mean Streets crossed with The Parent Trap. There’s Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal, also a producer on the series), an independent sex worker with a nimbus of bleached hair, plying the treacherous street politics in the neon-lit warrens around Times Square. C.C. (Gary Carr) and Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe) are pimps on the make. The former is a mercurial charmer; the latter a calculating hard-ass. Both are more than willing to resort to violence to keep their charges in line. Those charges include Darlene (Dominique Fishback), a young prostitute and budding cineaste, and Lori (Emily Meade), fresh off the bus from Minnesota. Then there’s Abby, a college student who takes a break from sleeping with her philosophy professor to buy speed for some friends from a Hell’s Kitchen dealer only to get caught up in a drug sting.

The twin hallmarks of David Simon shows are an interest in tearing the veil off the systemic, institutional forces that drive people to the margins and a focus on humanizing the people who inhabit those spaces. The Deuce is no different. The system—as always, for Simon—is capitalism. This time the commodity is flesh. Primarily female. This is fraught, complex material. That’s before taking into account HBO’s reputation for blurring the line between necessary sexual story elements and titillation. The Deuce manages to depict sex work in a way that’s not sexy. It also, perhaps most importantly, strips away the swaggering outlaw charm of the pimp, revealing the core of the profession—a man with a knife forcing someone to do what he wants.

“It was important to me that we don’t ever shoot [sex work] in a way that isn’t real, or how it would actually look,” veteran television director Michelle McClaren told the The Ringer’s Alison Herman. “If you put a camera on two people having sex, it’s not necessarily going to look beautiful and romantic.”

However, if there’s one character that gets fetishized—maybe even exploited—it’s ’70s New York. The city and the era are both a character and a setting—the backdrop for the story and the medium through which the various street players move. Popular culture’s ever-changing relationship to the city’s dystopian period is fascinating—from the vérité style of ’70s cinema to the white-flight racial fears of Fort Apache: The Bronx and Escape from New York to the Million Dollar Listing–era lens through which the city’s bedraggled and bankrupt down period is seen as the greatest real estate opportunity in modern history. The Deuce—along with Vinyl and The Get Down—marks another change in our perception of that time. New York’s “gritty” period is now being acknowledged as an incubator for things which are inextricable from our current reality. In the case of The Deuce, that thing is porn.

Considering the fraying state of the world in 2017, there’s also a hint of looking backward to look forward, as if the tagged-up trains and decrepit streets overflowing with human tragedy at wholesale prices hold some fragment of what’s to come. And, crucially, this reassessment is necessarily influenced by people who know the era only second-hand.

Places give off a vibe, an elemental feeling, instantly recognizable as authentic to natives or anyone who’s ever floated through the night time streets of a particular place in a state of joy or staggered through them in the depths of despair. Maybe that feeling is timeless and the character of a place is a through line connecting generations, even as the geography changes. Maybe that vibe can be uncovered and reconstituted with lighting and costume and set dressing. Maybe if you stare at the scuffed surface of a photograph hard enough, you can see through to the other side. Maybe you can. The Deuce certainly thinks so.

“All my favorite movies are in New York in the ’70s,” Franco, who also directed episodes of The Deuce, says in a featurette about the series. “Mean Streets and Taxi Driver and Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon—I’ve seen probably hundreds times, maybe. And what I realized watching them, after directing some episodes of The Deuce, was when Scorsese was directing Taxi Driver, he could just go down to 42nd Street and put the camera wherever he wanted, and it would look great! It would look like seedy 42nd Street.”

As far as he can tell.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.