The Deuce: “Pilot” Series Premiere Review

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New York, 1971. For a series marketed as “James Franco’s porn show,” that’s what The Deuce is really about. The porn industry will play a role in that eventually, but not really in the pilot, which is much more focused on building a sense of place and developing the motives of this sprawling cast. In that way, the series will likely draw direct comparisons to one of David Simon’s previous efforts, a little show called The Wire, have you heard of it? Much like that series, oft considered one of the medium’s best, The Deuce is about the intricate dealings of a wide array of subjects that all inform each other even if their direct dealings with each other as the series progresses looks to be limited.

But what a wild a wooly place the pilot makes out 1971 New York to be. This authentically recreated Times Square is transporting, and plays fast and loose with loads of shady characters vying to draw in our sympathies. The pilot would have us think that Vincent Martino (James Franco) is the lead, but as the show progresses, I expect those lines to be blurred. But serving that purpose here, Franco shows a remarkable amount of restraint, essentially playing the straight man (despite having ties to the mob) in this episode to balance out all the crooked cops, pimps, and prostitutes. Also playing Vincent’s twin brother Frankie, however, Franco gets to let loose a little bit. Unlike Ewan McGregor’s dual-role in this year’s season of Fargo, the Martino brothers both sport a mustache, leaving it entirely up to Franco to create the differences between them with his performance, a task he so far appears to be up for.

But stealing away the pilot with even just her limited screentime is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Eileen, or Candy as she’s known on the street corners, who just may prove to be this series’ Omar Little, the lone scenery chewer in an ensemble meant to embody realism. The pilot’s script does great work in turning what has become a rote cliche into a figure worth sympathizing with. Interestingly, the episode shows her being motherly at work before revealing she in fact has a kid. When she takes a young teenage boy into privacy to earn some cash, she talks down to him in a manner that’s more parental than condescending. Then there’s the way Eileen’s mother looks at her later, with her frizzy blonde wig put away, that wreaks of disapproval. The script’s way of introducing Eileen’s story is exciting, and Gyllenhaal admirably takes it all the way to the bank.

But the cast spreads beyond The Deuce‘s two most marketable stars, with promises of stories of pimps, mobsters, and prostitutes to come. Even at almost 90 minutes, however, the premiere struggles to get us attached to some of these side characters, a problem that it’s pretty easy to trust will get fixed within a handful of episodes. And with just eight episodes for this premiere season, The Deuce could avoid one of The Wire‘s biggest problems: not knowing where to trim the fat. But for now, the table is set, and the pieces are ready to play in a time and place that sprung freedom, grime, originality, danger, and triumph, aka the ingredients of a great HBO series. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

One Response to The Deuce: “Pilot” Series Premiere Review

  1. […] the pilot on their streaming services early, so we already know that this drama gets off to a strong start. (Sept. 10 on […]

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