Pernell Walker, James Franco, and Maggie Gyllenhaal star in The Deuce (Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

In The Deuce, his latest examination of social ecosystems in this country, David Simon takes a typically granular and decidedly unglamorous look at the legalization of pornography in 1970s New York. The drug-slinging game of The Wire has been replaced with prostitution, a business with every bit as expansive and demanding a market—and poised for a transformation—which is what accounts for Simon’s interest. The former journalist has always had a knack for not just exposing the underbelly of a teeming metropolis, but also shining a light up at those who look down from their penthouses. Once again, he spins dramatic gold from the hard-to-follow inner workings of a city and even harder-to-face realities, avoiding moral judgments despite regularly wading into vice, all while delivering the latest in appointment TV.

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Together with longtime collaborator and crime novelist George Pelecanos, Simon crafts a meticulously detailed world full of characters from every social strata who are united by the all-mighty dollar. Not all of The Deuce’s players value it the same way, let alone share the same values, but they all get caught up in a citywide effort to restore respectability to New York City. No one in law enforcement or the government is zealous or naive enough to believe that they can stamp out the sex trade, which is why loopholes in obscenities laws begin to replace community standards, clearing a path for the legalization of “skin flicks” and peep shows.

That move to euphemistically named brothels and porn studios is the backdrop for this riveting period drama, which you’ll watch compulsively even if it’s hard to pin down why at first. Simon and Pelecanos work with as big a cast as ever, in roles that run the gamut from capo to police captain, progressive English major to well-meaning mook, and of course, exploited sex worker to exploitative pimp. Starting with its 90-minute premiere, The Deuce takes them all into consideration for its larger narrative, exploring how their actions and crimes are necessitated, and in some cases, commuted by capitalism. Because, “public morals task force” aside, it’s not the Bible thumpers or pearl-clutching bourgeoisie who are pushing sex workers like Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal); Ruby, a.k.a. Thunderthighs (Pernell Walker); and Darlene (Dominique Fishback) off the streets and into massage parlors. Candy’s mom might make a snide comment about her daughter’s occupation, but moral objections are few and far between here. Making money is paramount, which is why there’s a body type, kink, customer, and eventually, medium for everyone.

James Franco, Chris Coy, and James Franco (Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

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Combining dozens of disparate storylines, including a doubly nuanced performance from James Franco as twins Vinnie and Frankie, proves to be as easy as ever for Simon. Although it quickly becomes clear who will break from the pack—Gyllenhaal and Franco predictably and deservedly come to the fore—the writers, unlike the police and politicians, don’t treat anyone as disposable. The series makes time throughout for small but meaningful interactions, like pimps C.C. (Gary Carr, who’s a silver-tongued revelation) and Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe) trading jabs and tips, NYU student Abby (Margarita Levieva) sharing book recommendations with Darlene, or the Martino twins busting their brother-in-law Bobby’s (Chris Bauer) balls.

Even with all these moving parts, nothing that exciting happens in the first half, least of all the sex, which is by design. As the plot is slow to take form, Simon can’t quite avoid the “where is this going?” feeling that plagued Treme and even occasionally reared its head on The Wire (early on—relax). His ambition never gets the better of him, but it does make keeping track of all the characters difficult, even when the cast is selling the quieter moments. Again, if anyone can juggle a cast of dozens, it’s Simon, and here he’s working with several talented folks from The Wire, Treme, and Show Me A Hero, including Akinnagbe, Fishback, Bauer, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Method Man, Daniel Sauli, Natalie Paul, and more (it’d probably be easier to name-check the actors who haven’t worked with Simon before). But sometimes his energy is spent developing stories that quickly run out of steam. The Abby character in particular takes up time that would be better spent elsewhere; she’s the only one operating with a safety net, so her story lacks any real urgency. Levieva is a winsome performer, but too often she comes across like a tourist in this world of shifting social mores.

Natalie Paul and Dominique Fishback (Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

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Part of the problem is that Abby’s arc remains static throughout the first season, while everyone else is much more dynamic. This story is rooted in capitalism, but in place of the proverbial rat race, we have a never-ending climb. The huffing and puffing throughout comes just as much from the dutiful fucking as it does characters walking up staircases at train stations, construction sites, movie theaters, and seedy hotels. Sometimes the ascent leaves them winded; other times, access is blocked once they make it to the top. It’s a subtle yet constant reminder that upward mobility is an illusion for most.

Nowhere is this more evident than with Gyllenhaal’s character, Candy. She regularly leads men up the stairs and into her rented room, where, as an independent contractor, she runs a greater risk than her fellow sex workers. But being occasionally robbed by a john is preferable to being exploited on the daily by a pimp, she argues. Having a son motivates her to find a new way to make money, but she can hardly quit the game at this point, so she transfers her skills to the porn studio, where she eventually makes her way behind the camera. This is America, she observes. “When do we ever leave a dollar on the table for someone else to pick up?” So, despite the puritanical values, the back-alley market, and the brown paper bags wrapped around “obscene material,” sex work will continue—and Candy’s going to try to capitalize on it for a change. Enough can’t be said about Gyllenhaal’s performance; though she plays a single character, she fills every frame in skyscraper heels and curly wigs, leavening her weary resignation with optimistic determination.

While Candy provides a feminist angle to the story—something we also see behind the scenes, with women in the writers room and directing half the episodes—the show stops short of applauding her or anyone else for trying to get theirs. It’s light on praise and condemnation, striving for an almost journalistic objectivity while never fully detaching itself from the horrors and triumphs (you can guess which are fewer and farther between). Equally balanced is its mix of style and substance. The Deuce has tons of swagger and appealing visuals—Michelle MacLaren outdoes herself in the premiere and finale—but look closer and you’ll see that strut is just an affectation, the funky threads covered in grime and who knows what else. The show’s creators get just as caught up in this sordid albeit entertaining world as viewers, but Simon and Pelecanos take care not to forget what’s underneath it all.

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Reviews by Erik Adams will run weekly.