Bill Landis was just a kid when his parents started taking him to Broadway – attending “tourist trap plays” but getting sidetracked by marquees that advertised lurid porn titles such as The Devil in Miss Jones (’73). This marveling at the low rent cinema houses that lined “The Deuce” (as the 42nd Street strip of exploitation homes became known) later transformed into Sleazoid Express, his self-published ‘zine that acted as a counter-culture answer to the perceived snobbishness of critics such as Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael, whom he resented for turning their backs on the scummy, lo-fi works running all hours of the night and only showing positive favor toward “the hip new Fellini or Bergman film.” These writings began as bi-weekly journals, whose only subscription price was postage, later evolving into a regular paid publication (with the aid of fellow sleaze expert Michelle Clifford), and perhaps the greatest tome on exploitation pictures ever compiled.
Sleazoid Express doubles as a document regarding the “old” Times Square; before Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg (not to mention the corporations) moved in, transforming the postcard-averse dive into a veritable Disneyland of brand logos. Landis was fascinated by the pimps, the hustlers, the queers, the punks, the junkies, the tourists, the deadbeats – all of whom would gather under marquees or in the theaters they belonged to, so that they could get high, sleep it off, wipe the blood and cum from their clothes, or maybe catch a movie. It was a playground for degenerates, all searching for their next freeing thrill, which also held a legitimate sense of danger around every corner. The fact that nobody’s ever truly explored the era cinematically (at least outside works that were actually made during that period) has always been a mystery to this writer, as it seems rife with potential, both historically and narratively. There’s an entire filmic underbelly that’s only been mined in books thus far, and a well-crafted period piece could milk '70s/'80s Time Square for all its smutty glory.
Thankfully, David Simon and George Pelecanos (The Wire, Treme) agree with this assessment, as they’ve seemingly crossed the writings of Bill Landis (in spirit, at least) with the street level view of survival that made their previous collaborations so special. The fact that they’ve brought aboard perhaps the best working television director in Michelle MacLaren (Breaking Bad, Game of Throne) to helm the pilot (which Simon and Pelecanos co-penned) only sweetens the deal. Set in 1971, movies such as Dario Argento’s Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Richard Canter’s Starlet, and Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man dot the marquees and fill the poster frames, while hookers like Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Darlene (Dominique Fishback) make a game plan for their evening under the makeshift shelters provided by these skeez palaces’ carnival barker awnings. Granted, a few of these films were probably not playing these theaters come ’71 (as Starlet was released in September ’69 and Crystal Bird in June ‘70), but the overall aura of the grindhouse circuit is achieved by at least selecting epoch-appropriate programming.
The big story with The Deuce is going to be the involvement of James Franco, who doesn’t just play one character, but twins – Brooklyn bartender Vincent, holding down three jobs and some semblance of a young family, and Frankie, the gambling lowlife who owes scratch to seemingly every broken-nosed made guy in a half-assed Hell’s Kitchen crew. Franco is literally working double-time to try and capture the slimy nature even the working stiffs who called Times Square home owned, traveling back and forth across the bridge for shifts at two drinking holes and a Korean joint. The performer’s slathering the New Yawk accent on thick, and mostly does a decent job blending into the seedy surroundings, yet it’s difficult not to feel like we’re watching a movie star play-acting as a blue collar Joe. This becomes especially distracting once the magic trick of having Franco portray two people is introduced. To be fair, we don’t really get enough of Frankie to understand what type of role he’s going to play (as he’s ostensibly ducking the camera as well as the bookies and his brother), but the bad seed is essentially introduced as just that: a dramatic foil for his already struggling better half.
Franco’s domestic drama is what ends up sending him down to advance a month’s stay in a seedy roach bastion on 42nd (as the mother of his children – played by Zoe Kazan – keeps stepping out on the late-shifter). This is the largest dramatic set up for whatever Simon and Pelecanos’ envisioning of The Deuce has in store for us next. Though it’s in the hookers and the hoods that the series finds the true soul of Times Square, just as The Wire did with Baltimore. The duo’s writing possesses a unique knack for discovering a tongue outside of their own, without ever feeling like two condescending white guys trying to “write black and poor”. Simon in particular deeply adores these characters; his years working the crime beat before becoming an author and screenwriter shining through in the empathy he shows for even the lowest pimps. Some of the pilot’s most magical moments come when we’re simply sitting with these lowdown purveyors of pussy, and listening to their takes on world affairs, some going as far as comparing Richard Nixon’s brandishing of nuclear firepower in Vietnam to the way a hustler will use his blade to intimidate his stable into submitting to their wishes. “Nixon’s pimpin’” one jive-talking turkey says to the other, bringing these global concerns down to the microcosmic level of the world at hand.
Members of The Wire family are also brought back into the fold in order to breathe life into The Deuce. It’s a total thrill for fans of that masterwork to see Slim Charles (Anwan Glover) show up as a cook at the diner where this motley crew of businessmen (including Gbenga Akinnagbe’s compassionate player, Larry Brown) gather once dawn breaks on their almost endless evenings. The bleak trials and tribulations these women endure are also documented in great detail, as they deal with Johns harboring aggressive rape fantasies, or who merely want a companion to come over to eat pizza and watch an old B&W movie with. This loneliness is felt most in Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whose independent lady of the night feels like a modern reinterpretation of Princess from Gary Sherman’s West Coat predecessor to this NYC pussy parade, Vice Squad (’82). Like Season Hubley’s no nonsense streetwalker, Candy doesn’t take shit from anyone, bats off the seasoned hunters (like one particular motor mouth, played by Method Man), and knows when to say “no” to a birthday boy hoping to cum a second time. But Irene (as her mother still calls her) also has a kid living out in Jersey whom she supports with this hard earned money, never wanting her baby boy to see her out selling the body that bore him. So she goes home to an empty apartment, listens to her messages, counts her crumpled dollars, and passes out before it starts all over again – the very definition of a working girl.
It’d be easy for The Deuce to tip over into straight up glorification of this decade under the influence, but Simon, Pelecanos and MacLaren are wise to end their inaugural episode on a note that reminds us that these are still very bad people, capable of perpetrating acts of despicable violence against one another. Likewise, there are other storylines introduced (such as Margarita Levieva’s promiscuous, speed-purchasing NYU student) that are going to take time to develop over the course of these first hours. But the pilot for The Deuce is undeniably wonderful – brimming with distinct details that not only bring the 42nd Street Bill Landis described in his writings to effervescent existence, but also humanizes those living in its cracks with effortless style. If the series keeps this up, it's going to be a very special television event, that will hopefully last for years and cover all the oft-unspoken history this stomping ground has to offer.
The Deuce premieres September 10th, but the pilot is streaming now on HBO.com.