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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

Such dedication to the humanity of every member of this expansive cast helps make “The Deuce” a unique experience. Much like Simon’s previous projects, from “The Wire” to “Treme” to “Show Me a Hero,” his writing ennobles the overlooked members of society: the working class, the beat cops, the night workers, the homeless, and the men and women who are just trying to get by. Along with co-creator and longtime collaborator Pelecanos, the scripts are as researched and evocative as ever.

“The Deuce” marries these words with a vision to match. A shot of period-appropriate footwear strolling down an upper Manhattan sidewalk is cut against a crane shot of multiple XXX movie theaters covering the same street. Viewers are there, in ’70s New York, from start to finish, and they’re given access to the bars, alleys, police stations, and brothels many HBO subscribers would be too timid to enter even if they had a time machine to do it.

The Deuce Lawrence Gillard Jr Season 1 HBO

For all the talk surrounding “The Deuce” as an introduction to the pornography industry, it takes its time getting there. Most of the first season is spent on the streets, learning how prostitution transitioned from corners to private clubs, how the city supported the sex industry, and why the definition of obscenity opened up institutionalized opportunities — and traps — for women.

And women are at the forefront of this series. Led by a moving performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal, as an independent prostitute working without a pimp, “The Deuce” defines itself more from the female perspective than any sort of male gaze. Anyone turned on by the nudity — male and female, in equal measure —  isn’t paying attention to the story. The danger within the lives of these working women is obvious, and the story and visuals don’t shy away from it. It challenges you to view sex as the characters do: a trade.

But “The Deuce” also illustrates how the patriarchy takes advantage of the people providing the product. That includes men, too, who struggle at the bottom of the rung, busting their ass and breaking their back with no plan for ascension. But it’s the women who do so without legitimate hope for real gain. Pimps rule their prostitutes with authority just as white men in suits make the rules for how women use their bodies. Simon, Pelecanos, and MacLaren make the glass ceiling visible, and that adds all the more significance to this story.

“The Deuce” is studiously made without ever feeling educational. It’s a marriage of narrative and production that “Vinyl” strived for and never achieved, but the eight-episode first season has far more on its mind than sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Viewers will benefit from closely scrutinizing each scene, even though it’s surprisingly easy to sit back and let the series wash over you.

At a time when powerful people are eager to take more control over the neglected populace, “The Deuce” shines a light on the great American melting pot. It elevates a subset of the population being pushed down in every way it can, cinematically and conceptually, and anyone watching would be hard-pressed not to start paying better mind to the humanity all around us. You may not realize it while it’s happening, but “The Deuce” will make you take a good look in the mirror — and think long and hard about what you see.

Grade: A

“The Deuce” Season 1 premieres Sunday, September 10 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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