Where to Watch: HBO
Premiere: Sept. 10, 9 p.m. ET
Stars: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Franco, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Ralph Macchio
Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner walk into a bar ... only it's a really sleazy bar filled with pimps, pornographers, dealers and whores.
That’s close to what you get in The Deuce, the eight-part series about Manhattan’s 1970s sex trade that HBO is betting will keep subscribers now that Game of Thrones is done for the season. Any anticipation you feel about the show comes primarily from the writers: David Simon, George Pelecanos and Richard Price, the contemporary crime-writer equivalent of Hemingway et al. These guys plumbed the depths of the inner city in HBO’s The Wire. Price is one of America's great novelists of any genre.
What are they looking for? What heart of darkness will they conjure up in the heart of New York's Times Square? It's the place where creepy sin (often in the guise of liberation), like an oil slick, spreads its greasy rainbow-colored film over the surface of American culture on the neon-lit blocks of 42nd Street west of Times Square, the stretch known as the Deuce.
One thing for sure is that in this series, there is no holding back. The key writer trio and the other writers and directors (many of them women) are determined to make viewers experience the ugliness of the human spirit with no redemptive motif that I can see. James Franco plays twin-brother hustler types, and there is something about his porn 'stache that really does the acting for him — I mean for "both" of them. You see it and wonder, Did men actually think these looked cool and not just terminally pathetic? Maggie Gyllenhaal does her best to suggest the glimmer of a heart of gold in a prostitute who builds a porn empire. Drugs and AIDS hover, ready to exact a biblical revenge on all the creepy-crawlies of the Deuce. This may be both the most sexually explicit and the most puritanical film product you can find.
The perversely redemptive "hero" of The Deuce is the neon streetscape itself. It's weirdly beautiful. The camera loves the glow of the 42nd Street movie-house marquee light boxes, with their strange mixture of frank and rank porn titles and art-house foreign film favorites that found refuge from the reign of Cineplexes. You’d see "Live Nude Girls" playing with Bertolucci's The Conformist.
It's strange how beautiful and seductive neon at night can be when filmed with love. That's about the only love in this series about sex. For some it will be enough.
But what about our three writer heroes? It was brave of them to reject an easy, redemptive tone — and yet has this investigation of sleaze gotten beneath its slick surface? Maybe they discovered that there's a deeper shallowness beneath the surface shallowness. It's certainly true that sleaze is currently having a quality TV moment. (I'm looking at you, Ozark.)
The Deuce does qualify as quality because the talent involved is undeniably at the very peak of the craft. Still, one almost longs for the finely tuned balance of dark and light that an urban series like Law & Order once managed to achieve. Or for that matter, The Wire.
Ron Rosenbaum is a journalist, literary critic, and novelist. Follow him on Twitter: @RonRosenbaum1