It’s hard to outdo the mix of humanity and tragedy in the conclusion of A Tale Of Two Cities, but David Simon and George Pelecanos sure try—and they put Sydney Carton’s trip to the guillotine in there to boot. Midway through the pilot of The Deuce, a prostitute and one of her regular clients watch the conclusion of MGM’s A Tale Of Two Cities adaptation. Darlene, played by Dominique Fishback, is at the foot of the bed, transfixed by the film. “She loves him, right?” she asks Louis, who’s sitting over in the corner in his undershirt. Her knees are drawn to her chin, and that’s the most physical contact that will occur in the room. Louis just wants someone to watch a movie with. Darlene needs to ask for an extra $20, because a Dickensian historical epic lasts longer than her usual “date,” and she doesn’t want to risk angering her pimp, the volatile Larry Brown. Louis obliges—he’s just happy for the company.

It’s a moment of “’Tis a far, far better thing” in the midst of an episode that’s all best of times and worst of times. The Deuce is the finest, purest pilot of Simon’s second career. Its super-sized running length gives us additional time to acquaint ourselves with the sprawling ensemble, and for that ensemble to acquaint themselves with one another: Whether they’re in the shelter of a grindhouse marquee or at the House Of Korea’s bar, the introductions feel like introductions, expository without the requirement of Candy or Vinnie or Abbey’s entire life stories. (That bump on the noggin is a real helpful method for delineating the two James Francos—Jameses Franco? James Franci? Carton and Darny?) When introductions are unnecessary, these people merely move in and out of one another’s lives. Darlene and Vinnie cross paths when her day is ending and his is just beginning, and at the diner, everyone’s conversations overlap, Altman-style—C.C. and Ashley even invade the frame as Reggie’s coke goes ’round the table. The big-city hum comes from multiple sources.

It doesn’t hurt that Michelle MacLaren is conducting that hum. The Emmy winner who helped shape the visual template of Breaking Bad keeps The Deuce’s pace up even as it stretches toward the 80-minute mark. She classes up Simon and Pelecanos’ brown-paper-bag material with artful compositions and an eye that never misses a leading line, whether it’s boxing C.C., Chris, and Larry in on a shoe-shine bench or pointing Vinnie toward his new, what do you call it, “innovation.” There are frames whose busyness reflects the Times Square hubbub (like Candy’s pair of bedroom tableaus) and frames whose stillness squeezes a character (usually Vinnie) into a very tight spot. Forced perspective and a shallow depth of field turn Abbey’s crossed legs in the lecture hall into another of the show’s giant advertisements—and she’ll be the one to decide whether she’s being objectified or not. The Deuce looks great even when the onscreen action makes me want to turn my head; in one feature-length pilot, MacLaren has managed to capture the street-level look of 1970s Scorsese better than the HBO ’70s period piece directed by the actual Scorsese.

Gary Carr (center), Cliff “Method Man” Smith, Gbenga Akinnagbe (Photo: Paul Schiraldi)

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Then again, The Deuce is about actual characters, and not about caricatures of record-industry personalities who tumbled out of Rich Cohen’s foggy memory. (I’d promise that this space isn’t going to turn into Weekly Vinyl Digs Digest, but I can’t really promise that.) In classic Simon fashion, those characters get the narrative bare minimum in their first outing; the pilot is more about getting the lay of the land, of observing these people in their natural habitats, peddling vice and the scummy image that defined New York during the “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD” days. (Though that headline is still four years and a presidential resignation off.) Like Lori, we’ve all got new-in-town stamped on our foreheads, and it might take more than a single viewing to figure out, say, the intricacies of Vinnie’s work schedule, or which one of the Martino boys ditched the Dodgers farm system. It did for me, at least.

The Deuce’s pilot envelops you, though the movie stars break the illusion as much as they fuel it. The misgiving about the show I’ve heard the most—you know, aside from the sexual violence and the abusive relationships between the pimps and the street walkers—revolves around James Franco’s dual role. Will it be the peak of Franconian self-indulgent streak? Will there simply be too much James Franco? After the pilot, it’s plain to see that while the Martinos are the main characters of The Deuce, they’re the main characters like McNulty was the main character of The Wire. Frankie, being the loudest and more outrageous of the two characters, can be a distraction, and the mirror trickery during the twins’ first face-to-face interaction is some bald, “Check this out!” showmanship. But as Vinnie busts his ass, gets busted upside the head, and busts up his marriage, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Franco we first met as Daniel Desario. The wounded heartthrob whose mind has more poetry than his tongue is still very much in Franco’s wheelhouse, and for all the attention he pulls during his scenes, he makes sense as the personality anchoring The Deuce.

Maggie Gyllenhaal (Screenshot: The Deuce)

But Maggie Gyllenhaal makes more sense. She’s doing her own version of a dual role, wooing clients and being her own boss as Candy and being a mother and daughter as Eileen. Sometimes those sides of the character meld together, as in Candy’s tender treatment of overeager “birthday boy” Stuart. Reflected in the dingiest of hotel mirrors, she modulates between the two flawlessly, the tone of her voice conveying sympathy for a kid who’s out of his depths, while the businesswoman reiterates the cold, hard, capitalist nature of their transaction. Her car-dealership analogy is as strong as the Nixon-Vietnam explainer Reggie lays out at the top of the episode, and it has “Emmy submission” written all over it.

When Candy is giving Stu the “feels good” and “that’s nice,” it’s evident that the businesswoman is in control. The Deuce does a great job of showing us what its status quo is: Here are the people in nominal power, here’s how they wield that power, here’s how it’s accepted as the way things are. What drew me into The Deuce’s world are figures like Candy, Vinnie, Lori, Darlene, and Abbey, who don’t necessarily accept that this is the way things have to be. Now, if the David Simon oeuvre has taught us anything, it’s that these radicals and free thinkers don’t stand a chance against the systems that will keep them penned in to those benches, doorways, sidewalks, and narrow hallways. The systems The Deuce depicts are systems of exploitation, which use and abuse their participants until they’re discarded in favor of someone who’s not a husk of their former self.

But before this episode ends in an act of stomach-churning cruelty, it provides some glimmer of hope that that’s not how it has to be. Candy has claimed her own autonomy, and her own body. Lori strides into the bus station looking like she just rolled off of the turnip truck, then turns things around on C.C. by mocking his backseat wardrobe. In this opening installment, The Deuce enjoys a good about-face, be it Carton’s sacrifice at the end of A Tale Of Two Cities, Vinnie having to tell people he’s not Frankie, or the soon to be immortal words of C.C.: “So Nixon pimping.”

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And that figures in to the conclusion, too, in which C.C. ignores his interpretation of Nixon’s strategy in Vietnam, turning idle threat into alarming violence. There’s little trace of the debonair C.C. as he looms over Ashley, Gary Carr turning those big eyes and soft facial features of his into instruments of intimidation. The scene is all too familiar to the average viewer of HBO Sunday-night dramas, and maybe that’s why Vinnie’s out in the hallway, watching it from a safe distance through a transparent, rectangular pane. He’s bearing witness to true human suffering, but he neither intercedes nor turns away. In that moment, The Deuce isn’t entertainment, and The Deuce isn’t exploitation—it’s implication, powerfully so.

Best of times, worst of times.

Stray observations

  • Welcome to The A.V. Club’s coverage of The Deuce. I’ll be with you for the next seven Sundays of seedy hotels and wide lapels, though I should probably install some sort of privacy screen on my external monitor if I plan on watching the rest of the first season in the office. Who would’ve thought a frank depiction of the American sex trade would have so much nudity in it?
  • Something that struck me about the pilot is just how quotable this show is from the get-go. We get an early indication of this in Reggie and C.C.’s bus-terminal chat—The Deuce’s equivalent of the chess scene from The Wire’s third episode—but the dialogue crackles throughout. And thank god David Simon hasn’t lost his sense of humor: There are a few killer punchlines sprinkled throughout the pilot, like Candy’s pause to make sure that she can make good on Stu’s birthday check. “Local bank, right?”
  • The Deuce is HBO, not TV, but that doesn’t stop the show from using one of the oldest euphemisms in the book: Stu’s premature ejaculation smash cuts to footage of an oncoming subway train.
  • For additional reading on The Deuce, might I recommend Danette Chavez’s big-picture take on season one, or Katie Rife’s essay on the grindhouse rennaisance? TV Club alumna Meredith Blake also published this excellent report on the show in the Los Angeles Times this week, for which she spoke to Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michelle MacLaren, Megan Abbott, and David Simon about making sure that The Deuce wasn’t “the boys’ version of sex work.” For example: When Abbott and fellow crime writer Lisa Lutz were brought on staff, they made sure that the character we meet as “Thunder Thighs” in this episode eventually gets a real name.
  • How many returning players from the David Simon Repertory Company did you spot in the pilot? Lawrence Gilliard (D’Angelo’s a cop!) and Method Man are the most obvious Wire veterans, but that’s the erstwhile Chris Partlow, Gbenga Akinnagbe, as Larry Brown. Dominique Fishback, meanwhile, was in Show Me A Hero a couple years back.
  • Informal survey: If we started a TV Club Classic run through the first four seasons of The Wire, would anyone show up to read it?