The Deuce: a Raw, Uncompromising Take on Sex Work in 1970s New York

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By Carlos Lopez

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

America in the 1970s is often memorialized nostalgically: depictions in television and film include bell bottoms and flared collars, the harmless joy of disco. George Pelacanos and David Simon’s The Deuce takes an alternate approach. Similar to the way their previous work, The Wire portrayed poor areas of Baltimore, The Deuce holds a magnifying glass to the more complicated elements of the decade, focusing on sex work and the rise of adult films. Set in New York, a hub for the sex work industry at the time, the viewer feels every grimy, rat-infested corner of the city.

This blunt landscape continues into its depiction of sex work. Nudity and sex are presented in a mechanical, matter-of-fact way– one in which the viewer is often left with a feeling of unease. The act is never glamorous, never fantastical. Instead, it is portrayed bluntly, without romanticization. The Deuce follows a variety of characters, like Candy (Maggie Gyllenhall), an experienced sex worker making her own way into the adult film industry, and Darlene (Dominique Fishback), a young sex worker trying to make ends meet. Spearheading the show are Vincent and Frankie Martino, brothers living in New York precariously sustaining themselves by bartending and gambling. Both roles are played by James Franco, who succeeds in portraying the characters in such a way that they are differentiable to the audience.  

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

The real achievement of this series is the dedication to setting. Every frame feels like peering into the seventies, whether it be the blaring horns in the opening theme, the spot-on dialogue, or the diligent costume design. Pelacanos and Simon have a clear focus in their writing with the world they build. The Deuce is a study on the sex work industry– both as a community and a business– and rightfully explores the struggles sex workers faced then and now. 


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