HBO’S “THE DEUCE” NAILS GRITTY, SORDID DAYS OF TIMES SQUARE
A TV Review by Tim Riley
“THE DEUCE” ON HBO New York City’s Times Square, the site of massive crowds to celebrate both Victory in Europe and Victory over Japan at the end of World War II, soon thereafter became a symbol of the Big Apple’s decline. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, Times Square, particularly along 42nd Street, descended into a mix of peep shows, adult theaters, massage parlors, and seedy bars. Prostitution and drug peddling were common occurrences in daily life.
Released in 1969, “Midnight Cowboy,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight as street hustlers, depicted Times Square as a gritty, dark and desperate venue that only got worse in the Seventies and Eighties, before Mayor Rudy Giuliani cleaned it up and Disney bought real estate. HBO has launched a new gritty drama series in “The Deuce” that revisits those bad old days of Times Square starting in 1971, with a cast of interesting characters involved in the illicit trades of the neighborhood.
Appropriately, the title of this 8-episode series is taken from the nickname for Manhattan’s 42nd Street between Seventh Avenue and Eighth Avenue, a stretch of then-rundown real estate where the most prominent features were garish theater marquees and trash-littered sidewalks. This new HBO series has been created and written by former police reporter David Simon and his collaborator George Pelecanos. “The Deuce” is to the sex industry what their series “The Wire” was to the Baltimore narcotics scene. The creative team of Simon and Pelecanos has a knack for weaving various storylines and characters through different layers of law enforcement bureaucracy, criminal enterprises and societal upheavals. The setting of “The Deuce” in a decaying New York is ripe for exploration.
In a great cast of exotic characters, the emblem for a downward spiral incongruously mixed with hope for something better might be James Franco’s dual role of twin brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino. At least in the early episodes, Vincent, working double shifts as a Times Square bartender and trying vainly to hold his fractured family together, is not the focal point of “The Deuce” but more of a mirror image of the degradation and exploitation at hand.
Of the many hookers plying their trade, some are less hardened than others. Lori (Emily Meade), fresh off the bus from Minnesota, falls into the sex trade when pimp C.C. (Gary Carr) plays the part of a smooth operator to show her the ropes in the business. The most intriguing of the prostitutes is the sweet-natured Darlene (Dominique Fishback) whose interest in literature and classic films proves to be unsettling to her volatile, violent pimp Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe) who always intimidates his stable of women.
One of Darlene’s regulars is an old man who pays her extra just for her company to watch films from the Thirties on his television set. This too is a source of aggravation for the intense and demanding Larry. NYPD officers, outside of occasional paddy wagon raids, appear somewhat indifferent to the illicit activities, with Detective Flanagan (Don Harvey) as the one most likely to look the other way even after arrests are made. “The Deuce” has far too many notable characters to follow, but Michael Rispoli’s mob boss Rudy is one to watch when he becomes Vincent’s unseen partner in the launch of a new cocktail lounge called the Hi-Hat.
The attention to period details of 1971 are truly impressive. The creative team behind “The Deuce” has very effectively captured the realism of the festering corrosion of Times Square, from dirty sidewalks to the rotting core of the area’s deteriorating businesses and structures. “The Deuce” has so many moving parts that a viewer can become invested only by committing to watch each episode of the series for the interesting multiple layers of human drama to unfold.