It’s strange and depressing to contrast the way that sex workers are underrepresented and marginalised in real life with the way they are, numerically speaking, overrepresented onscreen. The recent BFI Filmography found a marked skew towards roles as prostitutes for women throughout cinema history – and now here’s a much hyped new HBO show, The Deuce, focusing on prostitution in 1970s New York and how it contributed to a boom in the porn industry. You might be rolling your eyes already but it’s surprisingly great.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked, since this comes from David Simon, the genius behind The Wire, and his regular collaborator, novelist George Pelecanos. Like The Wire, it has a huge cast and a plot so slow you could miss it entirely. But what keeps you watching are the characters, each one individual and palpably real, and the casual, grimy sense of immersion in another world.
On the same streets around Times Square that are now filled with tourist-friendly M&M Stores and chain restaurants, we find a world of ’70s vice, people being stabbed and left to bleed out as the denizens of the corner moved hurriedly away. There’s a rolling collection of street walkers and their pimps, so be warned: you’re going to spend most of the first episode with your shoulders hunched, worried that the show is going to rely on these stereotypes in the wrong way. Too often writers use period stories just so they can use now-taboo behaviours and language (characters here use the F-word about gay people, the C-word about women and so on). Luckily, Simon had the sense to hire Breaking Bad’s Michelle MacLaren to direct the feature-length opener and set the tone, and has two other female directors during the eight-episode run. They tread a careful line: the show is //about// exploitation but it is not itself exploitative. There’s endless nudity – female //and// full-frontal male – but it’s not used to titillate except, perhaps, in scenes between lovers; never in the more transactional couplings.
Give it three or four episodes (like The Wire), and you begin to fall for the characters. Maggie Gyllenhaal's fiercely independent, business-savvy sex worker is known as Candy on the street, Eileen to her mother and Mom to her son. She will, we sense, lead the charge to the relatively safer world of porn after becoming fascinated with the possibilities of filmmaking and fed up with the dangers of street work.
The Deuce is not gratuitous, and its multi-faceted look at exploitation and its many roles in porn industry is thoughtful
Darlene (Dominique Fishback) is likeable and bookish, both devoted to and terrified of her secretly insecure pimp Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe). Newcomer Lori (Emily Meade), fresh off the bus from Minnesota, is tougher than she looks but not nearly as streetwise as she thinks, as pimp CC (Gary Carr) soon shows her. And Method Man is pimp Rodney, keen to add Candy to his collection and willing to threaten her to do it.
Not everyone, thankfully, is a pimp or a hooker. As you’d expect of Simon, this covers the whole corrupt ecosystem of the time and how things began to change, so there is a background of gangsters and legal changes that will reshape the neighbourhood. Lawrence Galliard Jr (The Wire's D'Angelo Barksdale) plays an honest beat cop with magnificent sideburns who wants to push law enforcement back onto the mean streets. Natalie Paul, who appeared in Simon's last effort, Show Me A Hero, is journalist Sandra Washington, trying to profile the street workers’ world.
Finally, you may have heard that there are two parts for James Franco, as twins Vincent and Frank Martino, and we regret to inform you that this is true. But don’t be put off! The Francometer has swung back to “magnetic onscreen” and away from “just sit down already”. As the permanently indebted gambling addict Frank, he admittedly leans on his over-energetic superstar persona, but as semi-responsible bar manager Vinnie he’s reined in, the heart of this community and the magnet that may, eventually, link these disparate pieces.
The show can be uncomfortable viewing and potentially triggering, especially in the scenes involving pimps manipulating and abusing their clients. But it’s not gratuitous, and its multi-faceted look at exploitation and its many roles in the porn industry is thoughtful. It can even be funny: a group of pimps discussing the effects of the moon on women's periods, for example, or a client who pays to watch old movies with his girl. If the grime and grot feel real here, so do the racially and sexually diverse characters, and the signs are good that this could live up to The Wire’s example.
The Deuce is on Sky Atlantic from September 26