“The Deuce”: Vivid Portrait of Pre-Disney 42nd Street Sleaze

James Franco plays twin brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino in HBO's The Deuce.

Anyone who bemoans the Disneyfication of 42nd Street and longs for the days when this iconic NYC block teemed with prostitutes, drug dealers and degenerates was either not there or is a pretentious idiot who doesn’t have an iota of what she/he is talking about. Unfortunately, I’m old enough to remember when this storied street and Times Square were nothing more than a panorama of urban decay, and the grime and slime were so palpable that taking a bath in disinfectant didn’t remove the after-stench.

And yet, there’s no denying from the distance of time that the old 42nd Street, particularly between Seventh and Eighth Avenues — infamously dubbed “The Deuce” at the height of its decay — projects an intriguing sleaziness to history buffs that the current antiseptic incarnation lacks. Compound that with the worst excesses of the tacky Me Decade and you have ample fodder for small screen storytelling (HBO’s 2016 misfire Vinyl aside).

The plot premise is tantalizing.

Taking over the time slot left by powerhouse Game of Thrones, HBO’s newest series The Deuce has all the earmarks of a great show. The plot premise, about the rise of the legalized porn industry in NYC in the 1970s, is both fascinating and tantalizing. The cast, led by James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal —  both Oscar nominees — is impressive. Showrunners David Simon and George Pelecanos of the vaunted series The Wire have proven credentials. And, as exemplified in the first two episodes, there’s some solid, compelling writing.

Whether the show will live up to that potential or flame out for the remaining six episodes is anyone’s guess. So far, it seems to be the latest critical darling. And here’s the kicker — HBO just renewed it for a second season. But then, (cough) HBO initially re-upped Vinyl, and then later reversed that decision. Hopefully, that won’t happen with this show.

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Gyllenhaal’s performance as Eileen “Candy” Morrell, a seasoned, entrepreneurial streetwalker and Gary Carr as C.C, an ambitious, smooth-talking pimp who’s not above brutalizing the girls in his stable, are standouts. Carr, in particular, is so believable playing this manipulative sociopath that I was shocked to discover he’s a classically trained British actor! He was even on Downton Abbey (which I never watched, sorry). How’s that for versatility?

Kudos also goes to James Franco for reminding viewers he’s capable of richly textured performances and not just a weirdo fond of inane publicity stunts, which include his inexplicable turn a few years back as an artist with homicidal tendencies on General Hospital.

Gyllenhaal and Carr are standouts.

Speaking of soaps, in The Deuce, Franco plays one of that genre’s fondest tropes — twin brothers! But thankfully, neither of these characters has amnesia, was in a coma or is an evil serial killer.

Of the remaining characters, Darlene (Dominique Fishback), a sweet prostitute with an interest in literature, is probably the one you want to root for the most, but I fear she might meet a grim fate due to her kindly nature. We shall see.

If there’s a weak spot in the show, it’s the subplot focusing on the “misadventures” of wise-beyond-her-years NYU student Abby (Margarita Levieva). I cannot stand this supercilious, smug character nor can I abide her pseudo-feminist musings, which she delivers with a perpetual smirk. Does my extreme aversion have something do with the fact that I was once an NYU student, and perhaps I’m seeing a younger, more irksome version of myself? Nope. I was stupid — but not that stupid. What I find grating is that there’s nothing singularly human about her juxtaposed to the other characters, no vulnerability subsisting underneath the jaded, cocky veneer. Right now, she’s a barely thinking man’s sex fantasy, a cipher. I’m not sure what or who is to blame for this problematic depiction — the writing, the acting or both. (By the way, I looked up Levieva’s information on IMDb — she’s 37 years old! Isn’t that a bit long in the tooth to play a 19-year-old coed?)

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My favorite scene in the two episodes I’ve viewed so far is when a friend asks Candy to fill in for her on a Viking (yes, you read that correctly) porn loop that is being made in someone’s basement in the Bronx. When Candy shows up, she asks another “actress” who will be featured in the short about the script, to which the “actress,” cracks, “Honey, this isn’t Doctor Zhivago. They ain’t even recording sound.”

The scene is later followed by a repulsively hilarious bit involving a “money shot” and a can of Campbell soup. Yes, it’s just as disgusting as you can imagine but Candy, who seems smitten with the film-making process, takes it all in. Ah, the joyous pain of creating “art.”

Unless you have super delicate sensibilities, “The Deuce” is highly recommended as both entertainment and vivid evocation of street life on 42nd Street before it turned into a neon theme park of rampant commercialism. It could be the next great series, honestly.