The Deuce: a riveting peep show into the psychology of American capitalism

David Simon’s brilliantly made new drama about the rise of the US porn industry is not on a mission to titillate

Early in the first episode of The Deuce (Sky Atlantic, Tuesday, 10pm), David Simon and George Pelecanos' fantastically conceived and beautifully made new drama, two lavishly attired New York pimps seem to be addressing us directly from 1971.

Sitting in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and scanning the station for naive new recruits, their conversation is on the global politics of nuclear sabre rattling. President Richard Nixon's actions towards Vietnam, reasons one, is the sign of calculated lunacy: "If I was him, I'd be flashing nuclear weapons and shit," he approves.

This, you may have seen described in this week's coverage of nuclear brinkmanship, is known as the "madman theory". It's a stealthy, eerily topical place for a depiction of sex and commerce to begin. Moving from the hustlers and hookers of historically sleazy Times Square to the beginnings of the American porn industry, The Deuce provides its own kind of fascinating peep show into the commodification of desire.

"It's America, right?" says Maggie Gyllenhaal in a later episode, when her gimlet-eyed prostitute sees an opportunity. "When did we ever leave a dollar for the other guy to pick up?"

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If libido, as another theory goes, is like being chained to a madman, James Franco plays both sides of the shackle as twin brothers Vincent – a responsible, enterprising bartender – and Frankie, a raging, destructive id. The conceit isn't as showboating as Ewan McGregor's recent double turn in Fargo: Franco's twins are barely distinguishable, but wryly inseparable. And the trickery in presenting them together is as unshowy and effective as the stunningly authentic recreations of grimy New York in its good old, bad old days, when rows of grotty cinemas showed "gutter movies" and flop-house rooms got rented by the hour.

Simon and Pelecanos, and first episode director Michelle MacLaren, are not on a mission to titillate with either skin or nostalgia: like plenty of HBO shows, much flesh is exposed – as much of it male as female – but it makes the culture of sex work, its psychology and economy, more conspicuous. Gyllenhaal's Candy is a canny independent operator; other hookers are toxically enmeshed – even enraptured – with their pimps; and almost everybody is looking for a way out.

Like Simon's superb drama The Wire – to which The Deuce bears favourable comparison – the show has a knack for establishing its places and milieu: the sex workers gather at dawn in the same diner; a clientele of mobsters, prostitutes and cops are drawn to Vincent's new bar; corruption, sex and politics conspire to change "The Deuce" – 42nd Street – for a while and, to no small extent, popular culture forever.

With no judgment, little prurience and a winning observation of character, the connected players in this small neighbourhood are shown as part of a new capitalist experiment. “Nobody makes money off my pussy, but me,” Candy tells one headhunting pimp, as demurely as the words will allow, but she will become a figure agitating for a whole industry based on its mechanical reproduction.

Today, even that industry is in serious decline, but the divided culture it helped create, as liberated as it is dysfunctional, is still in full swing. It has even made a show like The Deuce possible. Everybody is a cog in the machinery of exploitation.