Having explored the Baltimore drug trade in the acclaimed HBO series The Wire, David Simon and George Pelecanos turn their attention to New York City in 1971 – specifically the notorious 42nd Street strip between Sixth and Eighth Avenues known at the time as ‘The Deuce’.
Grindhouses, flophouses and adult movie theatres flanked the streets of the Times Square and 42nd Street precincts in the early seventies, with drug dealers, pimps and sex workers plying their trade on the street corners. It’s where Travis Bickle drove his cab and hustler Joe Buck attempted to make it big, in Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy respectively.
David Simon and George Pelecanos’ ambitious new HBO series, The Deuce, explores this sordid milieu with a focus on the lost souls who inhabit it, as well as the legalisation of the adult film industry and its repercussions on both the area and the community. Then there is the organised crime contingent; zeroing in on the real estate market in the rundown neighbourhood and making a fortune from bars and massage parlours. As perceived through the eyes of the 42nd Street locals, The Deuce is an incredibly authentic snapshot of a seedy bygone era and a wonderfully nuanced, character-driven drama.
“an incredibly authentic snapshot of a seedy bygone era”
Marc Henry Thompson, a location manager on Simon’s series Treme, indirectly provided the seed for The Deuce by introducing the producers to a New York City local who had worked in the mob-fronted bars and massage parlours during the 1970s. That particular local and his twin brother would become the dual characters played by James Franco in the series – Vincent and Frankie Martino.
Despite its sleazy subject matter, the series is neither exploitative or gratuitous in its depiction of the porn industry. Nor does it sanitise the reality of the period; it tells it like it was. “If you allude to this in ways that clean it up, you’re not dealing with the fact that not only was labour marginalised and misused, but that the product itself was the labourer,” Simon told The New York Times.
The Deuce also boasts a strong female voice, with Maggie Gyllenhaal both a producer on the show and a central character. Her fiercely independent sex worker, Eileen ‘Candy’ Merrell, provides a vital perspective – refusing to work with a pimp despite the dangers involved, and seizing opportunities created by the emerging adult movie business, both in front of and behind the camera.
“Part of the reason I also wanted a producing credit and to be part of the conversation is because our show is about sex workers and about sexual politics and about misogyny. I wanted to be part of that conversation,” Gyllenhaal told The Hollywood Reporter.
Along with Franco’s double act and Gyllenhaal’s headstrong hooker, the show’s ensemble of colourful characters includes a number of regulars from The Wire, including Chris Bauer, Anwan Glover and Michael Kostroff. But the most important character is undoubtedly The Deuce itself – a living, pulsing entity with a salacious heart, re-created with startling verisimilitude at an uptown location; CGI rendering the seamy facades and theatre marquees with diligent attention to detail, right down to misspelt movie titles.
Prior to being cleaned up and transformed into a tourist mecca in the mid-nineties (see left), visitors were cautioned to avoid the Times Square and 42nd Street district after dark. Two generations on, The Deuce invites viewers to safely traverse this dangerous underbelly of New York City in the company of its denizens, and witness the birth of one of the world’s most lucrative industries.
In the early ’90s, the New York City and state governments joined forces to make Times Square and its environs a cleaner and safer place, demolishing flophouses and old porn and grindhouse cinemas – like the notorious Lyric and Selwyn. The area was systematically transformed into a family-friendly environment through the renovation of historic theatres, and the construction of new ones. The corresponding drop in the crime rate was dramatic and consequently, New York lost its reputation as a dangerous city. Now a hub for live entertainment, with a concentration of Broadway theatres, the New 42nd Street bears little trace of its sleazy past.