THE DEUCE Review: “Pilot”

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New series premiered Sunday night on HBO. The show is headed up by network veterans David Simon and George Pelecanos, who brought us the incredible The Wire and the much overlooked TremeThe Deuce seems to be some sort of happy medium between the two. What Simon, who was the showrunner for the two previous shows, is good at is creating real characters that are broad enough to represent a time and place, but also specific enough to feel real. Pelecanos, who wrote episodes for Simon’s aforementioned shows, seems to be pitching in to that end, as the first installment of the series continues that trend. Though a little light on plot for my taste (as was Treme) the show nevertheless held my attention throughout.

It focuses on brothers Vincent and Frank Martino, both roles played by James Franco. Vincent, at least in the pilot, has much more of an integral role to play. Married father of two working as a barman in both Brooklyn and Manhattan, Vinny is certainly going through some difficult times. After he closes up the bar in Brooklyn and goes to make the cash drop with the bank, he is immediately mugged at gunpoint. The thugs do not get the money as he already deposited it so they crack him on the head with the butt of the gun and leave. He comes home to find his mother-in-law smoking and watching TV; his wife asked her to watch the kids while she went out. Where? Mom doesn’t know. Soon we also learn that Frank is a degenerate gambler who Vinny ends up having to cover for in more ways than one (though, financially, with the New York mob is chief among them).

Vinny splits with his wife (Zoe Kazan) after a confrontation with her in a pool hall where she has been drinking and playing with strange men. It is this split that seems to be the impetus for Vinny’s eventual divergence into the world of prostitution and pornography. He moves into a seedy hotel in Manhattan, paying a month’s rent up front in cash, and exclusively works the bar in Time Square, now as a manager. Originally a Korean restaurant, Vinny’s first stroke of brilliance is having the waitresses there dress up in figure revealing pantyhose and offer the first drink on the house. Sex sells. It brings in quite a crowd. Innocent enough to start, but we know that things will get a little more blue from here on.

Though with a huge cast of characters (too many to name in this review), the heart of the show seems to come from Times Square prostitute Candy, played by the fantastic Maggie Gyllenhaal. She isn’t like the other prostitutes: she has no pimp. In one of the standout scenes of the hour and a half long episode, Candy is chosen by a group of young men to be a “birthday present” for a kid named Stuart. Candy brings the nervous Stuart up to a hotel room and lets him touch her breasts. Then when she puts the condom on him with her mouth, things, uh… end… prematurely. When Stuart says it isn’t fair that he paid the same amount as a man who would have lasted longer, Candy savvily explains to him in terms this privileged rich kid, probably from the suburbs, would understand. He tells her his father owns a car dealership and she explains that her father does not raise or lower the price of a vehicle depending on how easy or hard the sell is. “This is my job,” she explains to him, and he actually gets it. (He ends up signing over a $50 dollar check from his grandmother to her for some more action).

Later in the episode we see Candy visiting her mother, who lives in a nice home in the suburbs. Candy has lost the blonde curly wig we had seen her in throughout the episode, and we learn that she has a son staying with her mom. She goes to her old room and stares at the Marilyn Monroe posters she kept as a kid. We can maybe see where she got some inspiration for going blonde. When her son runs in, genuinely excited to see his mother, your heart breaks. We don’t know if her mother knows what she does for work, but she must know something is up if she is the primary caregiver for the kid. I am interested to see where this story thread goes.

The other more intriguing character in this episode (though you get the sense with such a large cast that role will shift from week to week) is that of Abby Parker, played by Margarita Levieva. Abby is a quite sharp and motivated college student. In an early scene we see her throwing a professor off mid-lecture by putting her pen to her mouth. Later we see them having sex, and post coitus she is basically giving him a lecture about what he teachers. She isn’t doing this for the grades. She doesn’t need to use her body when she has the brains. But she just genuinely enjoys sex and being sexual, or at least that is the sense you get.

When she tries to score some speed to help her roommates stay up and study, she is caught by the police. Officer Danny Flanagan brings her in but ultimately lets her off the hook, with the unstated agreement that she come out for a drink with him. While out for the drink, she meets bartender Vinny Martino, and a spark is made. Later, we see that Abby arrives to her exam late and then, thinking twice, doesn’t even go in. Is she quitting school? And if so, what will be her new path? Her connection with Vinny will surely play the part.

The first episode introduces us to a myriad of other primary players. Several pimps: Leon, Larry, Rodney, and C.C. Their girls: Darlene, Ruby, Shay, Melissa, and Lori. C.C. picks up Lori right off the bus from Minnesota. She is there for a reason: to make money in sex work. The new girl in town, we see the contrast between Lori and Melissa, a girl who has been working with C.C. (and in a sexual relationship with him as well) for a long time. C.C. commends Lori for bringing in $100 her first night before it is even over. When Melissa complains to C.C. that she does not want to work in the rain, he lures her up to a hotel stairwell where she thinks he is going to make love to her, but ends up slicing her armpit with a razor instead, and telling her she works wind, rain, sleet, or shine. Vinny happens to be in a room a few door down and watches this with a disapproving glare, but never does anything. The episode ends here.

It was a long but intriguing introduction to a large cast of characters, that barely got the plot moving. But now that we know the main players (well, most of them… cast suggests there is still more to come) things should pick up in the coming episodes.

Season 1, Episode 1 (S01E01)TB-TV-Grade-B
The Deuce airs Sunday at 9PM on HBO

Read all of our reviews of The Deuce here. 
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