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Sex Is Ugly

The Deuce Conversations, Episode 1

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Photo: HBO

Because you can find recaps elsewhere, and because we long for the watercooler talks of '90s yore, two editors, Geoff Rynex and Sam Eichner, will be using this space to have a weekly conversation about HBO's The Deuce, David Simon and George Pelecanos's unflinching portrait of the sex industry in 1970s New York. Given that the pilot was more than 80 minutes long, there was a lot to discuss...

Sam Eichner: I'd like to start out by saying that I think it was a wise play to have James Franco's Vincent pistol-whipped so early on in the pilot. Whatever your feelings are about Franco as an artistI happen to think he's a pretty talented dude, whose surfeit of passion for the arts is often misperceived as shallowI think everyone can sort of agree that they wouldn't mind seeing him getting pistol-whipped (on TV, not in real life). 

I'll follow up by saying how impressed I was with Franco's performance here. In another world, I could've seen Franco overacting the shit out of this. He seems to understand, though, that Vincent is the root around which all this other craziness will orbit for the next eight (or 10, or 70) hours or so. 

But the most indelible impression I got from the pilot was a sense of weariness. This was an exhausting episode of television to watch, and not because it ran for a good 85 minutes. During the night scenes, it feels extremely latepast 2amand during the morning scenes, at the diner or the shoe-shining station, it feels extremely early. The prostitutes operate with a modicum of lethargy at all times, and understandably so; with the pimps' beguiling pushiness, you really get an idea of the labor that being a hooker actually necessitates (aside from everything else). In short, this episode almost makes it impossible for you to imagine anyone has time to sleep, which, as a viewer, was electrifyingly disorienting. Did you get that feeling too? I have to think it was a deliberate decision, in terms of setting a distinct tone and mood for the show.   

Geoff Rynex: This is easily David Simon's highest production value project to date (Pilot director Michelle MacLaren was a major visual driver for Breaking Bad), and it makes all the sense in the world then that those efforts would go toward creating a rich, lived-in version of the Times Square of yore we so often hear people getting nostalgic for when lamenting its overwhelming commercialism nowadays. In typical Simon fashion, we see early and often that there's nothing to be nostalgic about (except maybe the pimp outfits). All of which is to say, yes, I definitely got the feeling of being exhausted from the constant movement of the Square, the dawn treks and the weary conversations at the all-day diner. 

I'm also with you about Franco. I generally like him too, but there's always a chance a writer or director stares into his eyes too long and indulges his considerable tendency toward self-indulgence. Thankfully that doesn't happen here. Maybe it's the crow's feet, but Franco plays both characters, both with pretty big personalities, pretty low key. That mischievous smile just seems...tired, like you said. Everyone's tired, all the time. 

I want to talk about some of what stands out to you an hour-and-a-half in; D'Angelo Barksdale's chess speech, analogizing the drug game to the game of kings in the early episodes of The Wire marked that show for greatness, and we get two similar speeches in The Deuce pilot—one from pimp Reggie Love (played by Tarik Trotter, a.k.a. Black Though of The Roots) on Nixon as pimp, and one by early Emmy contender Maggie Gyllenhaal on prostitute as car dealer. Like the chess speech, both serve up mesmerizing, insightful sum-ups of oft-stereotyped but infinitely complex professions viewers will need to understand if they're going to get anything out of the show. 

Speaking of D'Angelo Barksdale, I'm not mad to see Lawrence Gilliard (or Method Man, or Gbenga Akinnagbe, or Anwan Glover, or Chris Bauer) jump out of The Wire and into The Deuce. Despite this show's comparative star power, supporting characters will always be the lifeblood of a David Simon project at the end of the day, and we've got some experts in the field. 

Which brings me to Gary Carr. I have to talk about this guy. It's hard to out-magnetic James Franco (love him or hate him, magnetism is clearly not something he lacks), but I couldn't take my eyes off Carr as C.C., our feature pimp, who somehow managed to make pimp-smooth feel real and not cartoonish, when he wasn't menacing women in dank apartment stairwells. I'm picking him as this series' Honorary Idris Elba Breakout Award Winner. Thoughts? 

SE: I couldn't agree with you more about Gary Carr. He rides a razor-thin line between charmer and monster here with such humanity that it's hard for me, as a viewer, to not love and fear him the same way I imagine Lori (the excellent Emily Meade) and the rest of the gang do. While this is partly indebted to the strength of the writing, Carr manages to communicate the depth and complexity of the pimp-prostitute dynamic almost immediately. That's no small feat.

But you bring up another point about his performance that I think applies to the series as a whole, in that Carr never veers into the realm of caricature. Despite the inherent gregariousness and cartoonish-ness of the pimpI mean, just look at what these guys are wearingCarr grounds it in something real. Same goes for Maggie Gyllenhaal, who gives a masterclass in this first episode on How Not to Play a Prostitute Like a Capital-P Prostitute. Her Candy might be pitiable but she refuses to be a victim; she might seem empowered, but she is also deeply sad. Glueing these emotional states together is a world-weary ruefulness, which seems to be Gyllenhaal's modus operandi for now. I, for one, am already curious about her backstory. Her mom's house looks pretty nice. Surely, she could just live with her, right? What do you think led her to where she is today?

A few other scenes I'll call out here: Margarita Levieva, as Abby, turned in what has to be the sexiest performance involving etymological fallacies in television history. And I loved her ambivalence towards her stupid fucking NYU friends, who never study for shit. I also found Zoe Kazan an intriguing choice for Franco's wife. If you're familiar with Zoe Kazan, she does not usually play the floozy (usually, she's the cool, smart, funny manic pixie dream girl-ish character who's hot, but, like, realistic hot, not movie star hot).  She's convincing, though. And in a show that revolves around themes of powermostly of a sexual natureit's an interesting poing for Franco's Vincent to depart from.

One more question for you: Which Franco twin did you like best, both in terms of the character and Franco's portrayal? I think this is a debate we should be having weekly. 

GR: The Martino Twin power rankings! I love it. I'm a Vincent man myself, which is the easy route I suppose, degenerate gamblers being difficult to love. But, without giving too much of the rest of the season away, I think it'll be interesting to see a guy try to get involved with the mob while keeping his professional integrity intact. 

I agree with you on Kazan. She was an odd cast, but I buy it, and I like it. I wonder whether she'll serve more to remind us that Franco's Vincent isn't a choir boy, or whether she'll be fleshed out herself as the season progresses. It struck me though that Levieva's character, the intellectual, was probably the most one-dimensional of the episode, although she's likable as the rebellious, too-smart-for-her-own-good NYU student. I'm wondering if it's maybe too tempting for Simon to write off the better-off characters in his world as unworthy of deeper exploration. Leave that to...every other writer on Earth, I guess. 

Couple more quick things: how difficult are you finding it to resist getting retroactively more furious at how shitty Vinyl was when watching this? And, knowing that this is going three seasons, with the next one taking place in the late '70s, and the final taking place in the mid-'80s, what are your after-one-episode predictions for our main characters? 

SE: I think I'm a Frankie man right now, mostly because it seems Franco is having more fun playing Frankie, given that Frankie just drinks and gambles and smokes cigs and depends on Vincent to handle all his bullshit. He's the id right now, although it's clear Vincent is heading in that direction, too. That push/pull will be fun to watch. I have to say that, regardless of who I like better, I couldn't stop smiling when the two of them were on screen together. There is a simple, basic pleasure to watching the two Francos banter with one another. It's pure magnetism. And it seems all too fitting that the part Franco, a multifaceted artist, was perhaps born to play is in fact two different parts.

I have to admit that I only watched a few episodes of Vinyl, but I think Simon is putting Terrence Winter to shame here. Suffice it to say that while Vinyl was perpetually coke-fueled The Deuce feels strung out by comparison; and where Vinyl was glitzy, The Deuce is gritty. Artistically, that's much more interesting. 

fAs for predictions...I think one of the Francos is going to have to die, unfortunately. I imagine Levieva will become the sort of feminist prostitute or porn star. For some reason, I see C.C. getting a happy ending. Candy is bound to return home at the end of the series and play house with her kid, at least I hope she is. I'm very worried about the fate of Emily Meade's Lori. She's got prostituting hubris, and seems to be heading for a big fall. What about you?

GR: 15 years is a long time, and I've watched too much David Simon to think anyone's getting a strictly happy ending. I see Candy becoming a porn mogul who ends up estranged from her son, Vincent getting in way too deep and Frankie somehow coming out of it just fine, but unchanged. C.C. will be accidentally killed by one of his girls in a scuffle next season. Lori will become Ashley, and probably be the one who kills C.C. All in Altman-esque tones that eventually resolve with the first hints of the HIV/AIDS crisis, you wishing Simon would immediately create a series out of that right after. 

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