Midway through the first episode of The Deuce (Sky Atlantic), David Simon’s gritty and deliberately dense portrait of the sex trade in early Seventies New York, a young prostitute sat at the end of her client’s bed, mesmerised by the 1935 film adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. So tawdry is this series’ milieu, a rat-infested cesspool of pimps, hookers, police and porn-makers, that a reference here to Dickens felt oddly appropriate. But it may have also been a nod to the fact that Simon’s previous studies of social ecosystems have drawn him breathless comparisons to the Victorian author.
As with The Wire, Simon’s masterpiece depicting the decline of the drug-ravaged city of Baltimore, this eight-part drama is unflinching and unhurried, teeming with colourful characters from every social stratum. It doesn’t glamorise, nor is it didactic. Though it’s essentially about the founding of the American pornography business, from its advent in private peep shows through to it becoming a billion-dollar industry in the Eighties, you wouldn’t know that from last night’s 87-minute opener. Indeed, working with his frequent collaborator, the crime novelist George Pelecanos, Simon – a former journalist – is nothing if not punctilious, patiently exploring the minutiae of the world he’s infiltrated.
In a large ensemble, James Franco is the closest we get to a lead. Taking on a dual role, he plays a pair of identical, mustachioed twin brothers: Vincent, a decent, dependable bartender at a 42nd Street watering hole, and Frankie, a good-for-nothing gambler in debt to the Mafia. Clever camerawork aside, Franco is excellent, conveying enough nuance as to ensure we know exactly which character we’re watching without it being signposted.
Better still is Maggie Gyllenhaal. As Eileen “Candy” Merrell, she, too, is committing to a double role, one that sees her alternate adroitly between savvy glamour-puss who works without a pimp, and caring single mother. As the series unfurls, it’s Eileen’s narrative that lends The Deuce its feminist edge, as she transfers her skills to the studio, having identified porn’s potential way before anyone else.
Special mention should also go to British actor Gary Carr, whose suave, silver-tongued pimp CC seemed kind and supportive enough until we witnessed him “cutting” one of his loyalist employees at the close of episode one. Could The Deuce do for Carr what The Wire did for fellow Londoner Idris Elba?
If there’s a caveat it’s that a series this expansive is restricted to just eight episodes, meaning one or two arcs, such as a reporter’s investigation into the sex trade and police corruption, feel undernourished. Thankfully, though, a second season has already been commissioned. There will also be those who balk at the graphic nudity – and yes, some scenes are bleak. But exploitative The Deuce is not: this is the most potent and provocative drama of the year. Stay with it.