Setting a series narrative during a specific timeframe can be problematic. While attention to detail is key, too often the temptation is to positively laden the set with key signifiers while neglecting to develop characterisation. Frequently, the setting itself, rather than feeling like a natural backdrop to an engaging narrative, almost becomes a character in its own right, demanding the attention of the viewer and detracting from the central conceit.
Thus, for a period piece to be done so successfully, the setting needs to feel natural. The characters must feel like they inhabitant this era fully, complete with attention to costuming and location that ensures a believable and realistic result. Thus, clothes need to be appropriately scuffed, streets suitably dingy where appropriate. Mad Men, and Boardwalk Empire both ensured that the narrative focus was on the character development, and while, for some, the setting may have enhanced its appeal, it was the writing itself that led to success. Similarly, Vinyl, the lacklustre series set in the 1970s, paid little attention to writing and chose instead to highlight to an almost hyperbolic degree the apparent glamour and idiosyncrasy of its setting.
The Deuce, the latest effort from David Simon, best known for The Wire, correctly, and impressively, at least thus far, chooses to focus on character, while simultaneously creating an entirely real world. Set in 1971, the series focuses on the rise of the pornography, localising the events around Time Square and the titular 42nd Street. The pilot, as pilots are always compelled to do out of necessity, spends time establishing various storylines which begin to interweave and overlap.
The streets of New York, complete with grime, and bright lights, never feel jarring. Instead, its ability to both present the era and also seamlessly fade into the background highlights the intelligent concept of the series.
James Franco plays Vinnie, a bar worker who struggles with both the demands of family life and his increasingly estranged wife, along with the strain of maintaining a seven day a week job. Given Franco’s recent artistic exploits, it has become all too easy to forget his rather formidable talent when on form. In The Deuce, his laconic style is wonderfully matched to the engaging, exhausted Vinnie, who quickly discovers a talent for attracting punters to his new bar when afforded the opportunity to excise his exploitative business ideas.
Really though, the show thus far belongs to Maggie Gyllenhaal, and her performance as Candy, the sex worker who refuses to align her business with a pimp. Declaring her desire to ensure that nobody makes money from her exploits other than her, Simon’s series goes a long way to both humanise and validate sex work. Candy is an intelligent woman, who, for reasons as yet unknown, has engaged with this lifestyle in a manner that seemingly affords her both agency and control.
While it is impossible to predict the trajectory of the series based on a pilot episode, The Deuce is an impressive first episode, allowing its characters, and actors, an opportunity to truly breathe and inhabit the period.