HBO’s ‘The Deuce’ nails the ’70s sleaze of New York’s Times Square

In 1971, New York’s Times Square was the city’s center of vice and corruption. Nicknamed “The Deuce” by those who lived in its shadows, 42nd Street was a speed-fueled cacophony of prostitutes and pimps, racial anxieties and out-of-control crime, much of it heavily influenced by the mob and a corrupt police force. Times Square was not only a place to buy sex and indulge your darkest and most self-destructive habits — it was the literal representation of the most squalid elements of American society. HBO’s new series, The Deuce, shows us the moment when the neighborhood teetered on the edge of something major: the birth of modern pornography.

Even as working girls practiced the trade out in the open, pornography — meaning “skin mags” and sex tapes sold under the counter — was in its infancy. As sleazy as the Deuce was, the late ’60s and ’70s was still a more innocent sexual era than today. Even the XXX-rated movies playing on 42nd Street’s big screens were still of the Cinemax variety, as showing penetration was not allowed.

The Deuce captures the time when the sex trade first began to move indoors, with massage parlors opening with the tacit permission of police and prostitutes “daylighting” by filming short peepshow loops for viewing machines housed in the back of bookstores. This was all in hopes of getting off the street what one mobster associate of Vinnie Martino — the show’s main character, played by James Franco — calls “the human garbage.”

At the time, lower U.S. courts struggled to characterize pornography under the broader legal concept of obscenity until the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case of Miller v. California, which changed the definition of obscenity as something “utterly without socially redeeming value” to that which “lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” Still, the mob and the pornographers leaned in further, recognizing there was real money to be made in indecency — and not trick-by-trick on 42nd Street, but wholesale. How it shakes out is fascinating to watch, and The Deuce is rooted firmly in the reality of the time. It’s a show that looks like it’s about sleaze, but it’s actually about money: Who makes it off of whom? Where does it go? Who gets paid off, and who just gets paid? It’s all about the cut, the payback, the skim.

When we meet antihero Vinnie Martino, he’s just a hardworking schmuck, a bartender from Bay Ridge who’s barely eking out an existence while dealing with a cheating wife and two small children. It’s only when he’s confronted by mob-connected bookies, who tell him he’s responsible for $30,000 in unpaid gambling debts owed by his charismatic, ne’er-do-well twin brother Frankie (also played by Franco), that he’s forced to get serious.

Vinnie is honest; he won’t fleece his bar or his boss to pay off his brother’s debt. This is the unlikely trait that eventually makes him appealing to the mob as a business partner. The made guys know he won’t steal from them, and they trust him, more or less.

The mobsters offer Vinnie something that’s too hard to turn down: his own bar in Times Square he can run himself. He has no interest in turning into a Mafioso, but his inherited debt is real. All he has to do is pay the mob a weekly “tax” of $1,000 to chip away at his brother’s debt — and make sure they get a cut of the action, of course — and pay an additional $250 every week to the local police precinct, and then he’s free to make as much money as he wants.

James Franco and, uh, James Franco in ‘The Deuce’Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Lured by the idea of real action — and, ultimately, to see if he can make it in the big time — Vinnie takes the chance. He leaves his family and moves into a Times Square hotel. At the new bar, called the Hi-Hat, he sexes it up for the cheap seats, outfitting his young female bartenders in leotards to lure the “suit-and-tie crowd” after work.

After happy hour, the Hi-Hat draws a rough-and-tumble crowd of prostitutes and pimps who are The Deuce’s other stars. The girls are the most entertaining to watch, probably because they have the most to lose. They perform a high-wire act every night, putting their bodies on the line for $40 a trick.

Amid beautifully sordid scenes of Times Square at night, roiling with people — crazed, dangerous, lost, on the grind — we see what was, by all historical accounts, the way of their world. (The Deuce writers definitely did their research; David Simon of The Wire created the show alongside with Wire collaborator and author George Pelecanos.) A prostitute has a regular who beats her up for fun but pays her a little extra for it; the same woman also has an elderly regular who doesn’t want sex, only to curl up and watch old movies.

And then there’s Candy (played Maggie Gyllenhaal), the emotional heart of the show. Trotting up and down 42nd Street in a tube top, hot pants and a curly blonde wig, she isn’t new to the streets. She has a high-class look and a shrewd business sense, refusing to work with a pimp. “Nobody makes money off my pussy but me,” she says to a new girl in a bit of advice.

There’s a heaviness about Candy, a disturbing sense of detachment. Her pain is always visible underneath her endless hustle. Still, it’s satisfying to see her forge ahead with a twisted sense of purpose, which brings us to the question hanging over the head of every girl out on the streets of The Deuce: Why?

Pernell Walker, James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal in ‘The Deuce’Paul Schiraldi/HBO

There are as many answers as there are working girls. Some are young and in it for the lifestyle — fast money and the supposedly inevitable life of glamour and leisure promised by their pimps that never really appears. Others are there because it’s better than terrible families in even worse hometowns, or because they’re addicted to the adrenaline or the drugs, or because they can’t fit into the straight world. We know why Candy is out there: She has a little boy being watched over by her mother back in the suburbs. What happened? What went wrong? We don’t know.

We also meet Sandra Washington, a reporter from the Amsterdam News who wants to know why these women work the streets. Sandra, played by Natalie Paul, is reminiscent of Gail Sheehy, the longtime New York magazine reporter who wrote a book about the same period, called Hustling, published in 1973. The fictional Sandra, like the real-life Sheehy, follows around the working girls — drinking with them, talking frankly with them about money and johns, even dressing up and walking the stroll next to them.

After Candy is yet again beaten by a bad john, it looks like her days of working independently on the streets are numbered — but after filling in on the set of a “blue movie,” she gets interested in the business side of film. On the street, she’s paid per act. Movies, though? Her occupational instinct lights up with the possibilities: percentage of sales, profits, residuals.

The burgeoning pornography industry is tiny, though. When Candy meets with a pornographer to pick his brain, he tells her he doesn’t even use film in the cameras when making some of his “movies.” The obscenity laws are too hard to get around, he says, so he invites male audiences to watch an “art film” being made — little do they know, it’s just a live sex show.

As Candy’s colleague Ruby says, suddenly it’s enough for some guys to just “watch some fucking. Not even get fucked.” And so modern pornography is born.

Natalie Paul and Dominique Fishback in ‘The Deuce’Paul Schiraldi/HBO

By the end of The Deuce’s fifth episode, we start to see the evolution of the sex trade really take shape. It goes from being the type of business conducted out in the open to one that also operates behind closed doors. There’s the aforementioned grey market of peepshow loops the prostitutes make in their off-hours and a promising new type of business: the massage parlor. (Despite the neutral name, massage parlors were actually just havens for selling sex indoors — a storefront containing a warren of rooms outfitted with Kleenex, Jergens and a washbasin).

Running a massage parlor, the mobsters tell Vinnie, is his real chance of a lifetime, an opportunity to make the real money. He initially puts up a fight — “What am I, a whoremaster?” — but agrees to run the place without too much argument. Times Square has seeped into his blood, and he’s due to make his. (Hey, even the real-life writer Gay Talese tried his hand at running a massage parlor at one point.)

To his credit, Franco sinks into his roles as Vinnie and Frankie. He’s not showy in either, but just plays the average, rather unremarkable guys as they are — run-of-the-mill men who deserve a break and finally get it when they’re thrown into extraordinary circumstances.

Like with AMC’s Better Call Saul, it’s interesting to watch a show to which you already know the ending. One only has to take a walk through Times Square today — no one has called it the Deuce in decades — to know what happened: Welcome to M&M’s World, Shake Shack and H&M.

But that’s getting way ahead of things. The area got a lot dirtier before it got better, and stayed that way for plenty of time. The Deuce marks — memorably, violently, viciously — all of the weird and wrenching moments in between.