Having a deep bench has never been a problem for HBO. Yet a year ago, the drama side of HBO felt like a complete disaster. “Westworld” had to go into re-shoots. “Vinyl” had just been canceled. “Game of Thrones” was not going to finish filming in time to be Emmy eligible, despite a shortened season order. But a year has certainly changed things for television’s juggernaut network. Like the hydra, the removal of “Vinyl” seems to have sprouted more prestige dramas worthy of the HBO credits. “The Deuce” comes with an “HBO Players” pedigree that we’ve been missing for some time. With it comes sex, drugs, and a period setting that feel at home on HBO. At the same time, it suffers from some trademark HBO issues. Overall, the pilot makes for an excellent intro in the world sets up what should be a long-running series.
“The Deuce” comes to HBO from David Simon (“The Wire”) and George Pelecanos (“Treme”), two of the best showrunners in the network’s history. Richard Price (“The Night Of”) is also on board as an executive producer and brings his considerable pedigree to the crime series. The series follows characters living in New York in the 1970s, just as porn, organized crime, and drugs converge on the city. The production quality of the show roars this broken era of New York to life. Simon and Pelecanos make the city feel alive in ways that “Vinyl” and many other shows just don’t. Even the silence is busy. The period feels unnaturally real for the series, and further proves this might be the best writing trio in the business.
The story follows an ensemble of characters who each pop in surprising ways for the audience. The headliners are no doubt James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who instantly make a meal out of their screen time. Franco is pulling double duty as twins Vincent and Frankie Martino. He is able to make both burst off the screen, and their down-on-their-luck situations instantly play into the narrative. Most importantly, he is having fun in the role, something that audiences want to see from Franco.
Gyllenhaal owns this first episode and looks like she’ll be a dominant force for the show. Her character is a sex worker named Candy, and is one of the few women who does not have a pimp. This raises the stakes of her game, and makes it far more dangerous as a result. This is some of her best work, and that’s saying a lot after “The Honourable Woman” won her a Golden Globe. Still, she dominates the screen as soon as she arrives, and disappears into the role.
The rest of the cast that shows up in the pilot is able to make the most of their screen time. They’re primarily split into the sex trade workers and those on the periphery. Dominque Fishback (Darlene) gets the best material of anyone in the episode, and wildly changes personas between clients. The show uses her vulnerability to subvert the audience’s expectations, which helps set up the dangerous world they live in. New girl Lori (Emily Meade) comes to town and is instantly sucked into the world of prostitution. Her pimp, C.C. (Gary Carr), is strong in the episode and bends several characters to his will. He is frightening and intimidating, both characters that could make him a star. In a fun turn, Cliff Smith, a.k.a. Method Man, is enjoying every moment as Rodney the Pimp. It’s a strong group that should help the show as it evolves.
Meanwhile, other characters work well to expand the universe outside of the sex trade. Margarita Levieva seems like a character who could easily emerge as a powerful female in this story. She’s inherently stronger than other characters on the show, and whether she retains her agency or loses it, her story will be interesting. Lawrence Gillard also feels perfect in his role, with small nuances in his performance that make the role feel lived in. It’s an impressive and subtle performance.
The real star of the pilot is the crafts team. They give full force in this episode and should be a creative arts dream for the Emmys in 2018. The costumes are spectacular, and the makeup and hairstyling follow suit. The cinematography is gorgeous and finds spectacular angles to shoot the world from. There is clearly some visual effects work at play, but most of the sets feel practical in nature. It’s a well-produced and constructed world that brings the show to life.
Unfortunately, the show runs into issues that seem easily avoidable. Perhaps the most glaring here was the runtime. There is not really any reason for the pilot to be more than 80 minutes long. If the episode had run a clean hour, it would have been nearly perfect in structure. However, as it currently stands, there are moments it begins to drag. It’ll be interesting to see how the show feels in an hour format, but with what we’ve been offered, it feels like an imperfect series that could become one of the better series on TV. This could very easily be a great show, but it needs to restrain itself and fix some of its pacing problems.
Overall, “The Deuce” feels like another home run from HBO. With a strong team working behind the scenes, this one jumps into your living room. It is something special, and could easily find its way into the next crop of series to dominate TV over the next five years. With only 8 episodes a season, exhaustion shouldn’t be too big an issue for its writers. It could also trim some of the fat of the story in the process. All the characters here feel grounded, and the writing gives them a lot to do. With some a little more editing, this premiere might have been the best on HBO in years. That said, it might be anyway.