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‘The Deuce’ Is About Porn, but It Isn’t Pornographic

Writer George Pelecanos joins ‘The Watch’ to Discuss HBO’s newest drama

George Pelecanos Getty Images

HBO’s newest drama, The Deuce, premieres Sunday night, when it will take viewers into the world of 1970s Times Square and its sex scene. On a recent episode of The Watch, writer George Pelecanos (The Wire, Treme) joined Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan to discuss collaborating with David Simon, staffing The Deuce’s writers’ room, filming nudity with a non-pornographic intent, and more.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Pelecanos: The thing that gets left out of the conversation about all the degradation of Times Square and everything, was people were having fun, and even in the early days, at the dawn of porn as we know it, it wasn’t so much like a porn actress, a diva or something like that, going to do these movies. It was maybe a couple would say, “Let’s go down, they’re shooting blues, let’s go down there and smoke some joints and do it, you know? We’ll have sex on camera.” It was all new.

Greenwald: I’m happy to hear you say the word “fun.” I want people who are about to tune in to understand that one of the great things about The Deuce is that it does have a sense of excitement and fun in addition to all the subject matter that you’re handling.

Ryan: There’s a feeling especially in the first episode, where it’s like, an alternative title for the show could’ve been Night People. Because they all seem to have this affinity for avoiding the dawn. You don’t want to get caught by the dawn, they’re out — the cops even, once they’re off-duty, you can tell they’re kind of loving it, being out. I loved that part of it. … [It] really captures the quality that New York has, that anything could happen on any given night. That idea of just sort of bumping into somebody and your life could change in some way. I love that.

Pelecanos: And yet, the ending of the pilot brings you back down elementally to — this is also a really dangerous place and some of these people can be pretty bad.

Greenwald: Let’s talk about that balance. I’ve seen your creative partner in this and other projects, David Simon, making jokes before everyone else does about how, “Here comes Simon to ruin porn for everyone.” Because The Wire and Treme are incredibly funny at times, but he has a reputation for being journalistic and very serious about the subject matter. I wondered what your role in navigating the subject matter was with him and with the rest of the creative team you had put together. Because your books are serious as well, but they’ve also at times embraced genre more openly.

Pelecanos: Oh, yeah, absolutely, proudly. And David has sort of a grasp of the bigger issues and the bigger picture than I do. I get down into the details. So I’ll give you an example. The scene with the pimps in Port Authority in the beginning, watching the girls go by and talking about it. I wrote that scene originally, and all that stuff about, “Look at that onion” and all that stuff, “I’d ride her like Man o’ War.” That was all me, right? And then David got ahold of it, and he put the stuff in about Nixon, Vietnam. He blew it up into something bigger, and it would’ve been a good scene without him getting in there, but he made it something else that has a little more resonance, you know what I mean?

Greenwald: That seems like a very healthy partnership, then, because you need both. You need Nixon and the onion.

Pelecanos: I think so.

Actors from ‘The Deuce’ HBO

Ryan: I was curious about how the writing process has changed from working on The Wire to working on Treme to doing this show. Because it, unlike most pilots, seems to have its voice down from the first 30 seconds. You’re just immediately brought into this world, everybody’s voice is distinctive. I think actually the time when I first noticed that is when the two [James] Franco characters first talk to each other and I was like, “Oh, man, this thing is really — they just put oil on this pan.” And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about process and how that’s changed over the years for you guys.

Pelecanos: I would say The Wire had a pretty high level of testosterone in that room, and there was a lot of argument and some of it got heated and so on. Occasionally, we had women in there, but for the most part it was a man’s world in there.

Greenwald: And it was a murderer’s row of writers. We’ve talked about this before; it was you and Simon and Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane was there one year.

Pelecanos: Yup. Ed Burns.

Greenwald: Ed Burns, not bad.

Pelecanos: Former cop. We knew from jump on this one that we needed a different kind of complexion to the room, and so we went out to female novelists that we like a lot: Megan Abbott and Lisa Lutz.

Greenwald: I’m glad you mentioned them, because speaking about murderer’s row, again, it’s unbelievable.

Pelecanos: Yeah, and we got Richard back. Richard’s the guy who wrote the Chinese food scene with the prostitute and the police, because that’s a real thing. That’s where Richard’s invaluable. Because he’s been there since the ’60s, in New York.

Greenwald: One of his most overlooked books is Ladies’ Man, which is this world in the ‘70s.

Pelecanos: I love that book.

Greenwald: It’s a terrific book. People, check that book out.

Ryan: And if you like New York nightlife, Lush Life is probably the best modern book about it.

Pelecanos: Yeah, Lush Life is a good book. And then we have gay writers, too, because we have a gay character that we’re gonna follow and we’re gonna go downtown with him and stuff like that, and David and I didn’t feel really qualified to get deep into that character. So we really made an effort this time to have everybody represented and I think you guys haven’t gotten to the episode yet, but the episodes that the women wrote are really good and different, too. They have a different tone to them.

Greenwald: It’s exciting to hear you talk about individual writers’ contributions, because one thing of this auteur era of television is that there’s the name at the top, and that name rewrites everything, and then if you worked on the show, you worked on it, but what you did is often lost. So it’s nice to hear, because you and David have such a tradition of bringing in strong voices, to let them do what they do best.

Pelecanos: I hope so. I mean, I’m not all in on that theory about the auteur. It’s super collaborative and it’s true that when you watch a season of any television it should sound like it was written by one person for cohesion purposes and continuity of voice and so on. But we try to give everybody enough space to put their personality into it and I think you’ll see it. If you’ve read Richard or Megan or Lisa’s books, you’ll see their personality in their episodes.

Greenwald: One more thing about the idea of how television is being made now, I’m very curious your perspective on it. Because after watching the pilot and after watching the second episode, I was all in, but there was something surprising about the show. There are a lot of things that were surprising about what we’re seeing. But I realized, it felt almost old-fashioned. And I meant this in the best possible way. That what your show did so brilliantly in the pilot is say, “Here’s a world. Here are some characters in it. Welcome, basically, and there’s more to come.” So much of TV now is, like movies, made for the poster. Right from the beginning there’s a question that’s gonna be answered. There’s a crime that needs to be avenged. You have that momentum and an attempt to get the audience in and running with you. I love that you didn’t do that. It feels so open-ended and exciting for that reason.

Pelecanos: Yeah, you’re usually encouraged to have a big “oh shit” moment in the pilot.

Ryan: Right, the bag of money.

Pelecanos: Yup. And it helps that we’ve been at HBO for 15, 20 years. They know what we do. They have some faith in us. We avoid those tropes if we can. But I’m pretty confident people are gonna stay with us just because it’s good.

Greenwald: You’re right.

Ryan: One of the things the show does have going for it is not only the across-the-board level of performance, but it has some star power. I have to admit, when it first got announced — I go up and down with Franco depending on the role, but I was sincerely blown away. This is something that could very easily go wrong, is the “I’m playing my own twin” bit, and I also was just so surprised by how immersed he seemed in it because he’s somebody who has this public persona of almost a performance artist, and he just seemed like a ’70s New York character actor all of a sudden.

Greenwald: It was so great to see him act, just bring it.

Ryan: Just waiting for a subway and smoking a cigarette.

Greenwald: Smoking a lot of cigarettes.

Pelecanos: He’s a full-blown man in this thing, where a lot of people were expecting the stoner, something like that. He surprised us in that way. None of us were sure with each other. In previous shows we’d done, they weren’t headlined by big movie stars, so we had to think about that. Maggie Gyllenhaal, for example, had to have a lot of faith in us because we asked her to do a lot of things that are really exposing herself, not just in terms of the nudity, but the acts. What she’s actually being asked to do.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in ‘The Deuce’ HBO

The thing I kept asking is, what’s it like for a woman to sleep with eight guys that she’s repulsed by, different guys every night? So we had to show it. We had to take her down to the bottom before we could start lifting her up again. And she had to trust us. All the actresses did. Our partner, Nina Noble, had meetings with all the women before we shot each episode. If we were asking them to do something, Nina would have a nudity meeting with them and tell them. And then when we got in the editing room, there was a lot of talk about, “Can you take a few seconds off of that? We’re lingering too long on her breasts.” We’re not trying to turn anybody on in the audience. And it’s a real fine line. You can’t do a story about porn without showing what you’re talking about. And yet you don’t want to titillate anybody because look, frankly, you don’t have to subscribe to HBO to watch porn; you can get it free on your laptop. That’s not what this is. So it was a lot of tricky navigation on this one.

Greenwald: Yeah, I’ve heard from people who have visited the sets of porn films, they say there’s nothing more boring than downtime on a porn set. And so it’s a very tricky line to walk, but something I think you’ve managed to pull off. And it comes up again and again in the dialogue, that the sex work is work before it’s sex, and that’s a recurring theme in it. So when we see people nude, it’s almost like it becomes like seeing a doctor in their scrubs. This is their work. … There must have been a lot of conversations about that very thing, about tone.

Pelecanos: Yeah. And in the writers’ room as well, before anything was written, we talked about that.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.