Sex is everywhere. From beverage commercials to lipstick ads, hardly anything in popular culture is sold without some semblance of eroticism embedded in it. Since the 1970’s, depictions of sex and sexuality have only gotten raunchier, more explosive and often exploitative. It’s a subject also now stands at the forefront of our society — and yet the way in which we discuss sex and more importantly sex work is not exactly progressive. The Wire creators George Pelecanos and David Simon wanted to shift the conversation. The duo has returned to HBO with a spectacular new drama, The Deuce. The series focuses on the rise of the porn industry and its legalization in New York City’s seedy Time’s Square beginning in 1971. By honing in on the people on the streets — the bartenders, mobsters, the sex workers and their pimps, The Deuce is both incredibly detailed and piercing. Once again, Simon and Pelecanos have worked diligently to flesh out characters who would typically be cast aside as one-dimensional fixtures in other series and films.
On a late Thursday morning, at the HBO building which sits just two avenues over from the tourist trap that birthed the porn industry, I sat down with Pelecanos, Simon, James Franco who stars as identical twins Vincent– a bartender and Frankie, a gambler and degenerate. Also present was Maggie Gyllenhaal who is exquisite as self-made prostitute Candy, Gary Carr who plays the volatile and charismatic pimp C.C. and The Wire alum Lawrence Gilliard, Jr who portrays kind-hearted cop, Chris Alston.
For Simon, this moment in our history was the perfect time to bring The Deuce to life. “You can’t tell me that after 50 years of the increasingly ubiquitous nature of pornography in the culture hasn’t made it more and more permissible for everybody from the President of the United States to the anonymous voice on Twitter to basically call women whores,” he emphasized. “It’s become our discourse, almost a default [when] any woman tries to say anything publicly. There’s something pornographic in our whole demeanor.”
The idea for the series started with stories told to producer Marc Henry Johnson, by the man on which Franco’s characters are based. Pelecanos said of the initial meeting, “David and I didn’t really want to meet this guy, because [of] the way Marc described it — a porn story, and we weren’t really that interested in that.” he expressed. “But he turned us on to this world because he had so many good stories. He knew everybody. He had this bar; everybody’s welcome there. You know straight, gay, transgender, cops, prostitutes, everybody was in this bar. So he got deep into their lives.”
These stories birthed an idea–one that says something specific about how our society shifted and evolved as a result of the rise of the porn industry. “All of a sudden we had a piece that not only was great for character, great for story, great for time and place, ” Simon explained. “But man, there’s an argument to be had here about gender. About who we are. This is a perfect way. We stumbled into it, kicking and screaming — we were dragged.”
Pelecanos and Simon were hesitant to move forward unless they had women on board who could tell the story from a female perspective. Once that happened, it still took several years of development before the series was ready for air. “We needed to bring in women because it couldn’t be just a boy’s version of porn and sex work,” Simon clarified. “We needed to add to it; we needed to interview women, we needed to … we read everything there was to read about sex work. Particularly in that period, in New York.”
Perhaps the most intriguing characters are the sex-workers themselves. Dominique Fishback’s naive Darlene, Pernell Walker’s Ruby who goes by Thunder Things and Gyllenhaal’s Candy, a whip-smart woman who refuses to get a pimp though they desperately goad her night after night among others. “It’s about seeing sex workers beyond their occupations as full, whole and realized human beings,” Gyllenhaal said. “I think is in a lot of depictions of sex workers on TV or on film, all you get to see is them when they’re working. A sex worker or street walker in 1971 would sleep with 8 to 10 men a night. If you only get to see that person working, that feels very far from probably our experience. If you also get to see that person as a mother, as a daughter, as a sister, as a lover– suddenly they’re a full person.”
Gyllenhaal took her role in The Deuce very seriously, even requesting and getting a producer’s credit so that her feedback would be taken to heart before she would commit to the project. “If we had done the normal boys club thing that we do. And is doesn’t really even matter how good of a writer you are, it does matter, but nobody’s that good where they can get into the head of a woman,” Pelecanos explained.
The Deuce is not without extreme depictions of violence. Simon and Pelecanos were careful not romanticize this time-period or the lives of the people who worked the streets. As the porn industry grew, violence and the drug epidemic spread rapidly. Gary Carr’s C.C., a pimp with a manic but quiet volatility is one of the most terrifying characters in the series. “There are certain idiosyncrasies and colloquialisms that you’re not going to get if you’re just watching a documentary,” Carr explained when I asked him about getting into character. “Having said that, documentaries were my best friend, I read a lot and I met a pimp by chance. He explained to me how the pimp game has really changed; it’s different. For every role, I study everything from the music of the time to what the political climate was, race specific, so many things.”
With such hard-hitting material, the actors had a lot to tackle during filming. “There’s pressure put on you to be the emotional backbone,” Franco said of his characters Vincente and Frankie who stand at the center of this world. “To be the character that the audience aligns themselves with, and goes through the emotional arc with.” For Gyllenhaal, playing Candy hurt a little. “In this case, it did have a lot to do with coming to terms with misogyny and let me say, I don’t think that porn is all misogyny, ” she said thoughtfully. “I think it’s a complicated thing. [It] turns most people on. I think playing Candy, playing a sex worker who gets involved in porn, that’s the heart of misogyny, right to the center.”
And yet, there was a fearlessness that came with taking on this subject, one that shines a glaring spotlight on the sex trade and how it revolutionized our culture — for better or for worse. In the series, Lawrence Gilliard, Jr stands just on the edge of this world, as Chris, a police officer who looks after the girls on the street the best way he knows how. “The things that all cops share in the beginning is they all have this desire to protect and serve. That’s what they want to do, they want to help people, ” he revealed. “That’s where Chris is. He’s that guy. It just happens he’s in one of the most corrupt police departments during that time in the seventies in New York. He sees these pimps, he sees the way they treat these girls, and he feels like he can help. He wants to help.” Gillard, Jr. continued, ” I think that drew me to the character. I always like to do parts where people are trying to overcome some kind of adversity or help someone else.”
In a society that continues to push back against women’s equality, sex, non-traditional gender roles and the like, The Deuce says a great deal in just eight episodes. Hopefully, those who tune into the series will learn a few things. “I love what David said in an interview we did together, he was like, ‘Who needs a union more than a sex work person?'” Gyllenhaal said “December 17th is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. I think because it’s illegal because it’s not regulated, I think there’s way more violence than there needs to be, and that’s in the show. I hope this show will begin a conversation about that.” Carr added,”For me, what I want people to take away from this is, it’s people, and I think they’ll see that.”
The Deuce premieres on HBO Sunday, Sept. 10 at 9 p.m. ET.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami