“You ever been to France? Me neither.”
In Bruce Kessler’s ’71 cult classic, Simon King of the Witches – a poster for which can been seen on the wall during a porn shoot in The Deuce’s second episode, “Show and Prove” – a Ceremonial magician (Andrew Prine) seeks to become a god, working his way through the gutters, selling charms and potions for easy scratch. Simon befriends a gigolo (George Paulsin), and introduces the naïve waif to a new psychedelic reality of drugs, sex and satanic rituals. In a way, Simon becomes a pimp, altering the prostitute’s perception of reality by making him believe in a higher calling through sex magick.
This mind altering con isn’t too different from how CC (Gary Carr) is casting a spell over his brand new bottom bitch, Lori (Emily Meade). In The Deuce’s pilot, Lori may be stepping off a bus, but she’s no stranger to being on her back. A ho since sixteen, the girl seems much more street smart than her lilywhite skin would have the human traffickers of 42nd Street believe. But CC is still a man of many tricks, filling the girl’s head with visions of a “normal life” (house, kids, all that shit) shared with a good woman who earns him his nut. We know it's all bullshit, as his last main woman, Ashley (Jamie Neumann), now has to hide the scars from his switchblade while shooting scuzzy “promo” photos to draw in new johns. The man’s a magician, but he’ll also swoop in and save Lori’s ass when a police impersonator puts her in cuffs with no intention of taking her down to the precinct, his bag of rope and other goodies a hint at the “fun” the maniac had in store for the girl had her man not swooped in and gut stabbed the motherfucker.
This is only the second hour of David Simon and George Pelecanos’ seedy Times Square chronicle, but the microcosmic details are coming into greater focus while these streetwalkers and the dudes they kick their nightly earnings back to dream of a world outside their own. Flatfeet (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr. and Don Harvey) round the working girls up for a night in the clink and some Chinese food, though those who have vouchers proving a stay in the past forty-eight hours get a free pass to get back to their business. Meanwhile, producers are recruiting off the corners to shoot their no budget fuck flicks, selling copies to palaces of disrepute like Fat Mooney’s, to peddle to their regulars for thirty-five bucks (fifty to unknowns) under the table.
Loop reels playing in adult novelty shops were cut, as showing penetration in a movie house or bookstore only led to confiscation by the cops. Hardcore wasn’t legal yet to publicly exhibit in the United States as of ’71, so these “brown bag” rules led to an open air market the cops knew about, but only occasionally cracked down on in order to save face. It’s the “more blue on corners” mentality of Simon and Pelecanos’ Baltimore beat on The Wire, only applied to sex instead of the drug trade. The biggest victims are the movie’s stars, who don’t see a dime of royalties from the quarter plays or back alley tape swaps. The hookers become no different than the corner kids, exploited workers who are profited upon and then discarded or locked up, only to be replaced by a new set of fresh faces.
Meanwhile, Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) stares into the bright key lights of a Viking cum fiesta she fills in on, seeing dollar signs and making sure to ask plenty of questions after they’ve sprayed her face with creamy Campbell’s potato soup (the better to fake big loads with). This independent woman is tired of being hassled by the hustlers (this week it’s the increasingly menacing Larry Brown [Gbenga Akkinagbe] doing the hollering), and wants to make a new type of living (while still utilizing her old tricks) to fund a better life for her suburb-sheltered kid. Darlene (Dominique FIshback) checks A Tale of Two Cities out from the library (thus literally bringing Simon’s beloved Dickensian Element back into the fold), parsing the prose in Kim’s Korean joint and desperately trying to envision a way to exist inside of them before Larry shows up and drags her back onto the street.
For a show that’s billed itself as a look into the “beginnings of New York’s porn scene”, the obscenity industry has so far taken a backseat to the rising ‘hood star that is Vinnie Martino (James Franco). If Franco weren’t having so much fun transforming the Korean dive into his own personal T&A tease for the working men and women of his area, these sections of The Deuce would be something of a slog to get through. In “Show and Prove”, Vinnie’s hatching a scheme with Italian boss Rudy Pipilo (Michael Rispoli) and his construction foreman brother-in-law (Chris Bauer, whose casting keeps the list of Wire alumni growing) to profit off these blue collar Joes’ paychecks. Rudy sees a hard worker in Vinnie (unlike his degenerate twin, Frankie, whose presence allows Franco to square his sleazy shtick), and awards him with the controlling interest in The High Hat – a “fag joint” that’s being blackmailed by vindictive, closeted customers. This is Vinnie’s chance to really own something in the Deuce, and he’s damn sure going to make the most of it.
Thus far, the pacing of Simon and Pelecanos’ latest sociological dramatic experiment is so languid that it borders on being a slice of “hang out” television (closer to Treme than anything else). We’re watching the pieces of this new game be put into play, as the “rules” of the early '70s are explained to us, sometimes while others are getting cheap head in a grindhouse. Some roles aren’t so clear, such as Margarita Levieva’s now former NYU student, who this writer suspects will find herself in front of key lights very soon. But when you have directors like Ernest Dickerson (Tales From the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight [‘95]) walking you through this stagnant pool of filthy water, it’s difficult to complain too much about the lack of urgency The Deuce is employing in its plotting. The universe these sometimes reluctant Simons call home is still being meticulously detailed. So, we might as well focus on the peripherals, while the main picture is still being painted.