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‘The Deuce’ Review: HBO’s Outstanding Porn Drama Is David Simon’s Most Absorbing Series Since ‘The Wire’

An instantly immersive experience, "The Deuce" delves into 1971 New York City with an eye for the overlooked denizens who built an American empire.

The Deuce Pernell Walker, James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal Season 1 HBO

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

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There’s a shot in the premiere of “The Deuce,” David Simon and George Pelecanos’ latest engrossing sociological HBO series, that will knock any cinephile on their ass.

Directed by the great Michelle MacLaren (“Breaking Bad,” “The Leftovers”), the sequence is deceptively simple: Vincent Martino, a bartender nearing the end of his second shift, is carrying a case of booze up from the basement when his twin brother, Frankie, pops up at the door to the restaurant. Vincent lets out an exhausted sigh and walks off frame as the camera tracks Frankie’s stroll down the bar.

And then it happens: There’s a mirror behind the bar, so as Frankie sits down to talk to Vincent, we see both twins’ faces simultaneously: James Franco, who plays both parts, is talking to James Franco. Vincent, arms crossed, stands with his back to the mirror and Frankie, sitting on the bar stool, stares into his reflection as he sits down to talk to his brother.

The 25-second tracking shot with a turn may not sound like much given how often we’ve seen an actor have a conversation with himself onscreen. It’s an editing trick so common most film students try it out during their freshman year. Plus, the take isn’t abnormally lengthy, nor the setting exceptionally ornate.

But this telling single movement combined with Franco’s dual performance illustrate the command evoked throughout Season 1; a mastery behind the camera that subtly elevates the compelling story in front of it makes “The Deuce” an utterly captivating experience. You’ll have watched the whole series before you stop to look at the clock.

"The Deuce Pilot HBO Productions 2015 1114 Avenue of the Americas New York City 10036 Characters: James Franco- Vincent Gary Carr- C.C. Margarita Leveiva- Abby Amber Skye Noyes- Ellen Don Harvey- Flanagan

Now, the duality of James Franco is a concept richly explored here at IndieWire, so the idea of the Oscar-nominated thespian playing twins is already appealing. But it’s not Franco’s performance that makes the scene emblematic of “The Deuce’s” overall impact; he is terrific, but it’s the visual illustration of his two selves that speaks to how this series transcends a studious period story and becomes an enthralling examination of how the sex trade went from an ignored profession on the backstreets of New York to a booming American industry accepted en masse.

You see, Vincent and Frankie are entirely different people. Vincent has a wife and kids and a home. He works multiple jobs, seven days a week, morning and night, to make enough money to support his family. Frankie is an indebted gambler just looking to scrape up enough cash for the next adventure. He doesn’t have a wife, kids, a home, or any sort of commitment. He lives for the moment. They’re both living the same lower-class life in New York, but Vincent is on the cusp of moving up and Frankie is content being a favored player among the working folk.

Franco crafts each character to believable extremes: Vincent is a weary blue-collar type with a mind for management and a strong work ethic. He’s happy when he’s behind the bar and one of his latest business ideas has helped keep things busy. Frankie, meanwhile, is excitable. He’s the life of the party with a personality so charming he even wins over his skeptical, know-better brother. You could start a conversation with Frankie and be pissed off beyond belief, but you’ll be laughing and slapping his shoulder before you’re done talking.

MacLaren’s shot introduces the key aspects of these two men. It’s carefully constructed to inform specificity of character and consciously built to illustrate the crucial differences between both brothers so the audience can understand implicitly, for the rest of the season, which one they’re watching in any given scene. It clarifies who Vincent and Frankie are, individually, just as the rest of the pilot utilizes similar attention to detail while digging into each character.

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