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‘The Deuce’ Review: Twin James Francos Shine in the Exciting, Masterfully Directed First Episode

'70s New York has never looked better.

The Deuce Season 1 Episode 1 Maggie Gyllenhaal

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Deuce” Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot.”]

When “Vinyl” debuted in February 2016, it was a big deal — for HBO. With a feature-length pilot directed by Martin Scorsese and an enticing ensemble cast including Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano, and Olivia Wilde, the new drama series was meant to be the next “Boardwalk Empire”; which was, in itself, the next “Sopranos.”

That obviously didn’t happen. Despite the prestige names in front of and behind the camera, as well as a popular period setting in ’70s rock n’ roll era New York City, viewers didn’t spark to the drug-fueled ride.

Time will tell if they take to “The Deuce,” but the fire has been lit — and Michelle MacLaren set it off.

From the first scene forward, where the camera comes creeping in from the street to a dive bar only toonies would be caught in that time of night, MacLaren builds a world exactly as one should: familiar yet fresh. We’ve seen the ’70s New York scene depicted a thousand times by a thousand people, and even Scorsese struggled to find a fresh vantage point in the cinematic but similar “Vinyl” pilot.

MacLaren uses every shot to her advantage. There’s an emphasis placed on detail that gives added life to the wide shots, as the day-in-the-life episode plays out from morning to night and back again. The streets come alive once the sun sets, as we tour the big city in its pre-consumerist heyday. Tracking shots roll down one sidewalk while our protagonist strolls down the trash-laden block on the opposite side. Medium framing slyly incorporates green screen, before cutting in to tighter shots that utilize perfectly decorated sets. Big, expansive wide shots are used to give a sense of place and time, making it obvious to viewers familiar with modern New York how much has changed and where, exactly, this world existed.

Though there are moments when telephiles may notice the elegant camerawork, MacLaren has fully invested in David Simon and George Pellecanos’ just-the-facts style of storytelling. There’s nothing garish about “The Deuce.” It’s filled with deceptively simple moments whose breathtaking beauty are only enhanced by further examination.

High-heel shoes swing into the center of the frame as a barefoot prostitute runs back to her pimp, carrying her nightwear. But as the camera pivots to follow her, she turns a corner and the bright morning sun introduces the final act: Daylight has arrived, and the sins of these night owls are coming home to roost.

It’s an idyllic blend of craft and narrative coming together for an engrossing first episode, and an outstanding introduction to characters deserving of further examination, as well.

The Deuce Natalie Paul Dominique Fishback Season 1 HBO

The Tale of Two Darlenes

Darlene, played with endearing familiarity by Dominique Fishback, represents the extreme ends of prostitution. One client gets off on pretending to rape her; breaking into the room, throwing her violently on the bed, and insulting her as he has his way. Even an unplanned violent outburst that leaves her bloody is fine — he’s a regular, and regulars are important.

Yet her other regular won’t even touch her. He sits in a chair while she’s on the edge of the bed. They watch old movies until the wee hours of the morning, and the man turns down Darlene’s offers, not even a handjob.

Both clients leave Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe), her pimp, pissed. One damaged the goods and the other took too long for too little money (even with the extras $20). But one can imagine each scenario going down without the regularity. Darlene has undoubtedly been attacked (as Candy implied when explaining the risks of working without a pimp), and she’s likely had unexpected requests of a less innocent nature. She’s playing so many parts in this life, and the pilot gives us a peek at the darkest and lightest sides of Darlene.

But Darlene isn’t the only character living two lives simultaneously. Duality is a running theme of “The Deuce,” as implied in the title, and it’s present everywhere.

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