/“The Deuce”, a skilful drama on the evolution of the sex trade

“The Deuce”, a skilful drama on the evolution of the sex trade

CANDY, a prostitute, invites a sex-show director to lunch. Misreading her intentions, he offers her a job participating in live sex scenes, where punters pay $40 to ogle naked bodies in flagrante delicto. Candy has a different proposition: she wants to be behind the camera. The director is reluctant—he has had to stop filming the performances for legal reasons—so Candy slams a bootleg film on the table. “If they can make and sell that in Europe, it’s not going to be long before we can make and sell it here.” How does she know, the director asks? “It’s America, right? When do we ever leave a dollar for the other guy to pick up?”
“The Deuce”, which premiered on on September 10th, gets its title from the nickname for an area of Times Square that was the locus of New York’s sex trade in the early 1970s. Its ostensible focus is the founding of the American pornography business; from its genesis in private peep shows through to its transformation in the 1980s into a billion-dollar industry. The first season explores how the advent of porn shifted dynamics. Prostitutes were the first porn stars, and the show is peopled by streetwalkers, pimps, bartenders and mobsters. The milieu is scuzzy, with pay-per-hour hotels, rat-infested movie theatres and anonymous back alley stabbings. 
It is precisely the sort of topic that David Simon and George Pelecanos, feted creators of “The Wire”, can do justice to. When that show first appeared in , it broke with the Hollywood formulas besetting other dramas about drugs, crime and the police by being sociologically exact. It revelled in the bureaucracy of the drugs business—one kingpin attends economics night classes—and the vernacular of its tradesmen. “The Wire” presented the big picture: how unbridled capitalism debases human beings.
Mr Simon, a former journalist, and Mr Pelecanos, an , bring a similar approach to “The Deuce”—only this time it is the human body that is for sale. The plot is multi-stranded. James Franco, who also directs two episodes, plays Vincent and Frankie Martino, identical twin brothers. Vinnie is a bartender with ambition, while Frankie is a gambler and a charmer. Their respective talents recommend them to a local gangster, Rudy Pipilo (Michael Rispoli), who offers them a business opportunity. The new bar—a prototype Hooters—becomes the favoured watering hole for the Deuce’s pimps and prostitutes. 
One regular is Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a world-weary single who spies a way off the street corner in the fledgling adult movie business. On the set of her first porno, she complains that the actors do not get royalties. “At least you’re not selling ass in the trenches. You’re an entertainer now,” the director replies. There is a sense that this will not mollify her for long. Though its geographical setting is narrow—the action is compressed into a few streets of New York—“The Deuce” examines the larger social changes being wrought at this pivotal moment in American history. Second-wave feminism, sexual liberation and the rise of counterculture jostle for attention in the background. 
The first season of the “The Deuce” is dense. With a recurring cast of 40 characters, it takes a few episodes for those at the centre to rise up; it might have benefitted from a run of ten episodes rather than eight. This is a minor gripe. As with “The Wire”, Mr Simon approaches his subject with journalistic integrity, and one of the show’s strengths is its insider feel. Mr Franco’s twins, though improbable, are based on real-life characters.
To quote Frank Underwood, the central character of “House of Cards”, another dark high-end drama: “Everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.” And so it is with “The Deuce”, which is primarily concerned with the webs and tussle for power between people. Cops pursue criminals, women seek financial independence from men, mobsters rip off other mobsters. Perhaps no relationship is thrown more off-kilter by the advent of porn than that between prostitute and pimp. One of the most fascinating aspects of “The Deuce” is its depiction of how that sphere was changing; among the city’s pimps, there is a dawning awareness that their heyday is over. 
But the show is most effective in laying bare its moral grey areas. At times, it celebrates the agency of individuals to change their fate; at others, it displays the human capacity for callousness. “The Wire” was different from other cop programmes because it spent as much time with the law-breakers as with those laying down the law. Both sides were contemptible, yet there were individual moments of grace. Similarly, there is no easy moralism with “The Deuce”. Pornography would morph into a pervasive force that changed human intimacy. But those who were there at the start were people like any other, doing what they could to better their lot. 
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