HBO's 'The Deuce' is a porn story with heart and smarts

Photos – local – The Deuce 2
James Franco stars as identical twin brothers Frankie and Vincent Martino in HBO’s “The Deuce.”

How do you make a TV show about selling sex that doesn’t sell sex?

If you’re David Simon and George Pelecanos (The Wire, Treme), creators of HBO’s The Deuce, you follow the money — and the people making it, skimming it, and fighting to control it.

Set in 1971, the year a landmark Supreme Court ruling redefined obscenity in a way that helped spur the mainstreaming of the porn industry, The Deuce, named for a once-notorious stretch of Manhattan’s 42nd Street, is one answer to anyone who’s complained in recent years about the Disneyfication of Times Square, or about furry costumed characters getting handsy.

Maybe the old neighborhood wasn’t the tourist-friendly pedestrian nightmare it’s become, but The Deuce, premiering Sunday in the time slot lately occupied by dragons, doesn’t appear to be out to make anyone nostalgic for the days when prostitutes (or their pimps) owned the sidewalks outside adult-movie theaters.

Which isn’t to say that The Deuce isn’t a lively place, or that you won’t fall for the women and men who work there.

James Franco plays identical twins Vincent and Frankie Martino. One a hardworking father of two with a broken marriage and an entrepreneurial streak, the other an exuberant ne’er-do-well in debt to the mob, the characters are said to be based on real-life brothers who acted as fronts for the Gambino crime family.

Frankie slicks his hair back, if that helps.

This double play struck me as maybe a little more Franco than strictly necessary, so let me recommend the show’s other big star, Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Honorable Woman). Gyllenhaal delivers a frank, fearless performance as Eileen “Candy” Merrell, another character with family obligations who’s not satisfied with her place in the local economy.

Camera icon PAUL SCHIRALDI/HBO
Pernell Walker (left), James Franco, and Maggie Gyllenhaal in a scene from “The Deuce.”

Candy, a hooker from a middle-class background who’s so far managed to make it on the streets without the dubious protection of a pimp, could easily have been an entertainment-industry cliche: the smart, presentable sex worker who’s just trying to make a living and who’s nobody’s victim. The Deuce, and Gyllenhaal, don’t let the lie stand. Candy’s life, mundane and terrifying, is worth fleeing, and as the first season unfolds, the burgeoning adult-film business begins to look to her like an opportunity to move up in the world.

But like The Wire, another show about a shadow economy both harassed and made possible by officialdom, The Deuce is about more than its big-name stars. So don’t let the Martinos and Candy distract you from  Darlene (Dominique Fishback), whose quiet decency could break any heart but her pimp’s, Sandra (Natalie Paul), a newspaper reporter trying to tell a story no one wants to hear,  or C.C. (Gary Carr), a smooth talker whose ability to manipulate women, keeping them on the street by any means necessary, is his greatest business asset.

Pleasure’s often found in dialogue that has nothing to do with the business at hand. Pimps Reggie Love (Philadelphia’s Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter) and C.C., talking in Sunday’s premiere about President Richard Nixon’s southeast Asia strategy as they wait at the Port Authority for buses to deliver potential recruits, is a reminder of the year  they’re in. It’s also a possibly shrewd bit of political analysis that wouldn’t feel out of place in 2017.

Police officer Chris Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr., The Wire), getting his shoes shined alongside several pimps, gives as good as he gets in a teasing discussion of footwear. Franco’s twins debate the relative merits of star sightings of brothers Dick and Jerry Van Dyke. And NYU student Abby Parker (Margarita Levieva) explains  the objectification  of women to bar manager Vincent Martino, who’s already cashing in on the concept.

The porn scenes in later episodes, quaint by modern standards — let’s just say the women all still look real — are deconstructed in ways that make them more interesting than porn, and David Krumholtz (Numbers) is fun as the director who inadvertently becomes Candy’s mentor.

Do I wish  TV were a little less interested in sex work, and in sexualized violence? Sure. I see too many fictional hookers already in my own line of work. A brothel’s a major focus in  Jane Campion’s mini-series Top of the Lake: China Girl (9 p.m. Sunday-Tuesday, SundanceTV), and HBO viewers are no strangers by now to the fleshpots of Westeros.

But if these are the stories we’re being told, it makes a difference how they’re being told. Nothing about The Deuce glamorizes prostitution or porn. If anyone’s objectified, it’s the johns, a motley crew who exist mostly as a series of ill-favored losers feeding their money into a machine they don’t remotely control.

The Deuce. 9 p.m. Sunday, HBO.