There are few television events like the premiere of a David Simon series; just as there are few events like an episode of television directed by Michelle MacLaren, or one scripted by George Pelacanos. Put those three in the same room, and you have the equivalent of a premium cable fan’s wet dream, a tapestry of seemingly endless talent, when harnessed to the right ends; unsurprisingly, a dirty, dingy drama about the burgeoning porn industry in 1971 New York City appears to be exactly that project for this holy triumvirate in 2017. Even though the first episode is a little too loose, and probably runs just a little too long, “Pilot” is a master class in television development, a movie-length episode that asks audiences to recognize its mind and trust its heart, even if the first offering doesn’t often expose that warmer, softer underside very often. As those who have watched anything from The Corner to Show Me A Hero know, the beauty is in the journey, the soul laid bare, deep within the intricate, realized world and narrative ambitions of The Deuce.
Starring James Franco Squared as the brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino, The Deuce often feels closer to Simon’s later work, than earlier projects like The Wire or even early episodes of Treme. Vincent Martino is, by most measures, a pretty stand up guy for a barman from Queens; often, Simon protagonists are defined by their moral limits, and The Deuce‘s pilot only occasional pokes at the facade of Vinny working hard for a mediocre life. The drama surrounding his life serves more as a entry way for the deeper themes of the series; as a character whose career is defined by cash transactions, Vinny’s career – and approach to his broken relationships with his brother and wife – is a gateway to the larger themes of survival and desire at the heart of The Deuce, deeper ambitions that rest neatly in the background of the quieter scenes in “Pilot”.
As with any Simon show, The Deuce demands one’s full attention, dropping audiences into a world that has existed long before we entered it without explanation. In this case, however, parsing out the larger ideas and important moments is a bit simpler than in shows past: the narrative of “Pilot” offers a wide palette of characters and scenery, but most of it feels rather rudimentary or archetypal; this is a show about hookers, pimps, and gamblers, and despite being 87 minutes long, there isn’t a lot of room for ancillary characters to develop beyond their known traits. There’s the doe-eyed hooker who reluctantly accepts beatings from clients; a pimp with a cane; the college student fucking her philosophy professor… at times, it feels a bit like The Deuce crossing off a check list as it goes through the paces of setting up its world and people. Of course, I have full faith The Deuce will make good on these characters and offer them the depth and nuance to distinguish them from their two-dimensional presentation; “Pilot” offers a handful of characters this opportunity, and it really shines when those moments arise out of nowhere (like a police officer getting a shoe shine and talking shop with a few pimps, or Maggie Gyllenhall’s Eileen talking to an inexperienced customer about the principles of capitalism).
Although this does make “Pilot” drag a bit in places, the show’s aesthetic is more than there to pick up the slack, offering the kind of vision of early 70’s New York right out of Thief or Taxi Driver. For every shining light of opportunity, there is a shadowy threat or pile of garbage awaiting on the next corner, all of which MacLaren captures with quiet reverence, a look into the past that revels in the contrast between the light and the dark, the clean and the gritty, that defines much of the existential conflict at the heart of Simon and Pelacanos’ writing. Staging an entire block in Washington Heights to look like New York in the 70’s certainly helps with this feel; combined with the signature naturalistic sound design of Simon’s shows, The Deuce envelops the viewer in the constant rumble of conversation and screeching metal of the five boroughs, draping every scene in a silhouette of sweat and cigarette smoke that drenches every scene with atmosphere.
Perhaps the most surprising element is just how limited the ambitions of this pilot are; one can almost feel the strain of construction at play in this 87 minutes, the excitement of what is to come hidden in scenes like the airport conversation about Nixon, or virtually any scene with Gylennhaal’s character (that doesn’t involve her “I have a child” subplot). Rather, the foundation for the exploration of sex and power as currencies are explored in the corners “Pilot”, tracing the reverberations of a commodified business as it ripples through a society that often, pretends it doesn’t exist. These moments, which are rarely given room to unpack themselves, are deliberately placed as markers for what is to come; for the most part, “Pilot” simply asks viewers to come along for the ride, a first offering that doesn’t need murders, shootouts, or plot twists to seduce an audience, and is all the more enjoyable for it.
The Deuce is not going to be HBO’s next breakout hit, obviously; the show’s aversion to titillation in its first episodes is the antithesis of the Peak TV premiere, absent of murders, shootout, plot twists, or thinly-veiled declarations of What The Point Is. And even though it doesn’t quite replace that with the expected complexity of productions past, it is clear that every integral dramatic ingredient is at the disposal of The Deuce, a gathering of elements and influences that will almost certainly develop its own distinct taste and flavor in the episodes to come. After all, each Simon pilot is but a gateway into a world; and The Deuce is no different, a drama with an almost intimidating amount of promise, a show pre-destined to be HBO’s next great, gravely underappreciated niche drama.