Porn Again: How 'The Deuce' Nails Seventies Skin-Flick Sleaze

Rob Sheffield on David Simon and George Pelecanos's epic HBO series about the hookers, hustlers and hotshots behind the Golden Age of Porn

Porn Again: Rob Sheffield on how 'The Deuce,' HBO's epic series about the birth of the modern porn industry, nails its Sucking-in-the-Seventies vibe. Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Times Square, 1971: The sleaziest cesspool in New York City is about to get sleazier. All around 42nd Street – known as "the Deuce" – the streets are full of pimps and hookers, XXX theaters and drug dealers, cops and johns and gangsters. The obscenity laws are relaxing, opening the way for the porn business to expand into the mainstream – massage parlors, private booths, sex shops. The cops let it all happen, as long as they keep getting their cut of the money. Everybody here is a tough crowd, because everybody's got a tough story. One corner girl takes a look at a pair of heels and asks, "How do you walk all night in those things?" The hooker shrugs: "I used to be a ballerina, so I'm used to pain." This makes the other girls on the sidewalk laugh at her. One of them heckles, "Yeah – I think I saw you in The Nutcracker!"

The Deuce is one of the most astounding things to hit TV all year, a triumph for the crew from The Wire – David Simon and co-creator/co-writer/crime novelist George Pelecano. As with that landmark TV show in Baltimore, Treme in New Orleans or Show Me a Hero in Yonkers, Simon goes into the interconnected stories and struggles and betrayals that make up an urban hothouse. But it has a much wider reach, and the Times Square environment gives the showrunner a chance to strut his narrative stuff like he hasn't since The Wire's fourth season. He even brings back some of his familiar faces from the series' company of repertory players, from Anwon Glover (Slim Charles himself!) to Lawrence Gilliard Jr. (as a jaded cop) to Method Man, making the scene as a pimp with the show's best hair.

And the show doesn't suffer from any kind of "it gets good" syndrome – after binging all eight episodes you want more, mostly because there's so much story, so many fascinating characters and so many magnetic performances. James Franco plays a couple of low-life twins, who share custody of the same seedy mustache. The smarter one, Vince, runs a 42nd St. bar called the Hi-Hat, while his loose-cannon brother Frankie just runs up gambling debts. They hook up with a mobster from the Gambino Family (the amazing Michael Rispoli) who's got bigger plans for Times Square and a low tolerance for sob stories. After he gets tough on some idiot who stands in his way, he muses, "Sometimes you gotta break a few eggs to make an egg sandwich."

Maggie Gyllenhaal gives a bravura performance as Candy, the hooker who tries to go it alone without a pimp and angles to break into some other racket – the relatively safer world of blue movies, where, as she says, "the camera's the john." She's just heartbreaking, from the brutality Candy witnesses to the psychic brutality she has to use to steel herself for another day of the life. The whole cast is a revelation: Dominique Fishback as a sad-eyed Carolina girl; Gary Garr as the predatory pimp C.C.; Margarita Levieva as a Connecticut college girl who's just walking on the wild side; and none other than Ralph Macchio as a vice-squad cop.

The Deuce gets into the dirty day-to-day details of the Me Decade sex trade – the way a "tunnel whore" haggles over outbound vs. inbound Jersey trips ("Hey, I just had your cock in my mouth and you're gonna stand here and argue with me about $10?"). Or the way a male porn star who finishes too soon assures the director, "Don't worry – I'm good for it." ("Mankiewicz never had to wait around for a hard-on," the director sighs.) Or how a hooker complains about the lighting in her "come coffin" of a room. "You got 250 watts in that lamp – I'm supposed to fuck someone in there or bake them?!?" Ominously, harder drugs are arriving on the scene. After one wiseguy slips off to the bathroom for a toot of cocaine, his friend tells him, "You look like you just blew the Pillsbury Doughboy."

But like The Wire, the show chronicles a bleak underworld with humor and empathy. It sets the Seventies scene without overdoing the obvious references – considering that 1971 was a year when all of Middle America was leering at this New York underworld from afar, via movies like The French Connection, Klute and Shaft. It brings the rotten old Big Apple alive in ways that Vinyl and The Get Down failed to do. The superb opening credits groove on Curtis Mayfield's "(Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below, We're All Gonna Go," which sets the tone for failed to do. The superb opening credits groove on Curtis Mayfield's "(Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below, We're All Gonna Go," which sets the tone for the series the way Tom Waits' "Way Down In The Hole" used to set the tone for its Bodymore-based predecessor. The Wire. The pathos of The Deuce is that nobody on these streets is worried about a hell below. They're already living in hell right now.