David Simon has built a career on gritty, ultra-realistic narratives. Much of his work is adaptions of non-fiction books. Simon also uses his own real-life experiences. A former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Simon’s shows have a journalistic quality to them. Set in the 1970s, The Deuce (the name of the show seems to be derived from a nickname for 42nd Street) is Simon’s newest project for HBO.
After one episode, it’s apparent that the show is going to deal with many different characters and many different topics. This is not new for David Simon. The Wire had a gigantic ensemble cast, making it difficult for even the most observant fan to remember the names of every character. Much like Simon’s gritty crime saga, The Deuce also has a strong cast.
James Franco has a dual role, playing twin brothers Vinnie and Frankie Martino. Vinnie is down on his luck, and works two jobs trying to support his family. We quickly learn that no one in Vinnie’s life seems to respect him. Customers at the bar he works at during the night talk down to him, his wife is constantly missing in action, and his mother-in-law seems content to sit in the living room and smoke cigarettes while watching television. On top of all this, the Korean restaurant that Vinnie works at during the day is in danger of going out of business. Then, there are the problems caused by Vinnie’s brother, Frankie. The only people who seem to like Vinnie are the pimps that ply their trade on 42nd Street.
Frankie is the more carefree of the two twins. He’s content to spend his time gambling, and just like a true gambler, Frankie is constantly placing large bets since he knows that the next bet he makes is going to bring in a big score. Unsurprisingly, the score never comes. This does not seem to faze Frankie, though. After all, the next big score is right around the corner. Unfortunately, when the bookies Frankie owes money to are unable to find him, they come to Vinnie looking for the money they are owed.
Franco does a great job in both roles. He plays Vinnie as a sympathetic working man who has the weight of the world on his shoulders. As we watch what Vinnie suffers through, we feel for him, wondering when the world will let him be. When Franco is playing Frankie, he comes off more like what the real James Franco seems like. It is a wonderful portrayal. Many times, when actors play two characters it is almost impossible to tell who they are supposed to be. Franco does a masterful job of subtly distinguishing the two brothers.
Maggie Gyllenhaal also plays a big role in the first episode. Gyllenhaal plays Candy, a prostitute working The Deuce. Unlike the other sex workers, Candy does not answer to a pimp. As she tells one of the other ladies who work the street, things can be a little more difficult and she has to be more careful than the others, but she keeps all of the money she makes. Candy seems like she is going to be the typical “hooker with a heart of gold.” That may well turn out to be true, but an amusing scene with a young man on his birthday also shows Candy makes sure to look out for herself.
Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Candy is a study in restraint. Candy does not seem to like or dislike what she is doing. It is made clear that Candy has responsibilities she keeps up with. Gyllenhaal doesn’t play Candy in a way that makes the audience feel proud or sorry for Candy. Candy is funny, frank, and honest, but most importantly, she is just doing a job.
Franco and Gyllenhaal are just three of the characters that will be playing a big role in The Deuce. In the first episode, we are introduced to Abby, an NYU student who is having a relationship with her professor. Abby is studious and opinionated but also seems to want to see what else the world has to offer. Along with Abby, there are the colorful pimps and prostitutes that work 42nd Street, the police who patrol the area, and some “organized” people who want to get to know Vinnie and Frankie better.
It’s already a lot to take in, but Simon’s writing handles all the stories deftly. The Deuce moves at a quick pace without being rapid fire. We are introduced to numerous characters without any of the stories feeling rushed. Characters have time to begin the development of their characters and story arcs. One episode is an obviously small sample, but in that short time Simon peels back the curtain and gives us an intimate look at the characters’ lives. New York is also being treated like Baltimore was in The Wire: New York, specifically 42nd Street, is not so much a setting as it is another character. The Deuce has a unique personality that adds to the show — we are not just watching characters hang out on just some street. We are watching how all the characters interact with each other.
While it is off to a strong start, there may be a potential problem ahead for The Deuce. While the cast does a great job, the size may end up being a detriment. Lots of characters and storylines can be confusing, especially for possible new viewers. In the On-Demand world we live in today this may not be as much of a problem as it was for The Wire during its heyday, however.
David Simon may have created another sturdy show for HBO. With a strong cast and an interesting premise, The Deuce is off to a promising start. HBO has a rich history on Sunday nights, and The Deuce looks to be a welcome addition.