The lives of sex workers, with all the boring bits left in

The Deuce review: Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco return in the 1970s-set porn drama

Ruling on whether or not a film qualified as obscene, in 1964, one US Supreme Court Justice was famously candid about his definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

As The Deuce (Sky Atlantic, Tuesday, 10pm) begins its second series, in a lovingly scuzzy recreation of the sleaze rush in late 1970s New York, many more people are free to see for themselves.

To begin, Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the salty hooker who last series became an early embracer of this new medium in smut, rises up from chronic darkness, guided by the burble of Barry White up into a colour-saturated disco heaven. Here, Vincent (James Franco) now operates the hottest club in town, and the clientele mingle with one-time prostitutes who are now emergent porn stars. "Look at us," Vincent toasts Candy. Until the crackdown of mayor-elect Ed Koch, everybody else seems to be doing precisely that.

The new kink in David Simon and George Pelecanos' series, a worthy successor to The Wire in its respect for underground communities and the details of labour, is how those people are looking at porn. "So now we're making art?" huffs Candy's producer, fresh from a reel that splices trippy, evocative images – a squeezed orange, a charging zebra – into a sex sequence. It's cut the way an orgasm feels, Candy argues, from the woman's perspective.


That, however, is not the viewpoint the business prioritises, and against the explosion of second-wave feminism it subtly suggests a flashpoint for how porn would come to intersect with society.

Vince’s wayward twin brother Frankie (also played by Franco) – all impulsive and id where his brother is worry and ego – is operating a peepshow business, and just like the logic of its new plexigass windows, the porn industry expects men to watch, as slavish consumers, while women dutifully perform uncomplicated pleasure.

“Who would have thought the most boring thing about this was the f**king?” Candy says, lying back inert on an office desk before a shoot, and the camera hovers above her as though she was on a slab.

The Deuce doesn’t try to strip the sex from its story – how could it? – but you could hardly call it titillating: the witty conceit of the first episode is how difficult it is for the heroes to get any.

Vince, chasing after his brother while trying to keep the mob sweet, barely has a moment with his squeeze Abby, now running her own bar. Lori (Emily Meade), an emerging star, is mostly compromised by her slick pimp, CC (Gary Carr), a flamboyant anachronism, now threatened by her new independence.

“Don’t forget to enjoy yourself,” one mobster tells Vincent, forever frowning over the urges of others. “That’s what it’s all about.”

He would say that; he views things from behind the glass. He doesn’t see the graft and struggle, the suggestions and frustrations, behind the scenes.

Sex work is work, the series knows. It’s ready to show you everything.