‘The Deuce’ Review: David Simon’s New Drama Is Sexual, But It’s No Fantasy

“The Deuce” may be even bleaker than “The Wire”

The Deuce

In the first episode of HBO’s excellent “The Deuce,” a teenage boy rolls up to a dirty New York street corner with a group of his friends. It’s 1971, and they’ve pooled together $40. They pick out Candy, a prostitute played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.

“We’re gonna party,” she tells the boy. But it quickly becomes obvious that this is just her job.

There’s no party in David Simon and George Pelecanos’s “The Deuce,” a study of scrappers trying to work their way out of a cesspool, through any job they can get. Even a gimmicky dual performance by James Franco, as twin brothers, doesn’t bring any joy.

What “The Deuce” does offer is mercantile sex, drugs and downtrodden characters like the ones who walked Simon’s “The Wire,” for which Pelecanos also wrote. “The Deuce” may be an even heavier watch than that classic look at the collapse of American systems.

In Sunday’s pilot episode, expertly directed by Michelle MacLaren, Franco plays a bartender named Vincent who is stuck working two jobs, while his brother Frankie is a reckless gambler who owes the mob big. A pimp played by Gary Carr lends nurturing, paternal advice to his newest girl Lori (Emily Meade), fresh off the bus from the Midwest, but the cliched pimp-prostitue dynamic shifts in unpredictable ways.

Candy, meanwhile, is slightly awed by women in porn videos or in Vincent’s bar who use their bodies “discreetly,” getting paid by men who only want to look at them.

“The Deuce” is fascinating for taking us back to a time when any kind of porn imaginable wasn’t available on whatever device you’re using to read this. Pelecanos and Simon immerse us in a period when people got their smut in bizarre ways, and slow burns to the point when the characters realize porn could be the answer to their prayers.

“The Deuce” needlessly delves into side plots — like the health problems of Vincent’s brother-in-law — that add unnecessary bleakness to an already sad enterprise. They feel reminiscent of the homicide-drama tacked onto HBO’s canceled “Vinyl,” which had the exact same setting as “The Deuce.”

But that show was about successful people, and “The Deuce” is about the people just trying to clean some dirt off — by spreading the dirt around.

“The Deuce” premieres Sunday at 9/8c on HBO.