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‘The Deuce’ Recalls Sex and Sleaze in 1970s Times Square

Now here comes a show about New York’s sex trade that can neither soft-pedal the brutal realities nor exploit the exploitation. “If you allude to this in ways that clean it up, you’re not dealing with the fact that not only was labor marginalized and misused, but that the product itself was the laborer,” Mr. Simon says. “Human beings were the product.”

HBO has a lot riding on “The Deuce,” which makes its debut on Sept. 10 with a cast led by the movie stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco. The premium cable network needs an attention-getting hit to replace the departing “Game of Thrones.” Its previous New York ’70s offering, “Vinyl,” was a scratch, canceled after one season.

Mr. Simon and Mr. Pelecanos, longtime collaborators on standard-setting televised narratives, initially had no interest in developing a series around 42nd Street, believing that there was little left to be said. Mr. Simon, a former newspaper reporter, has created and nurtured several enduring series, most notably the HBO drama “The Wire,” which explored Baltimore through its illegal drug trade. Mr. Pelecanos, a prolific novelist known for his detective fiction, worked with Mr. Simon on “The Wire” and another HBO series, “Treme,” which focused on New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

But Marc Henry Johnson, an assistant locations manager on “Treme,” encouraged them to meet a man he knew in New York — a man with stories. (In an unrelated matter, Mr. Johnson was recently sentenced to a year and a day in prison for his role in a woman’s fatal overdose in 2015.)

The two writers figured a quick hello-and-goodbye would suffice. That is, until the man, whose name they declined to reveal, began to vividly resurrect the pioneering days along the Deuce, when he and his twin brother — true story! — became mob fronts for bars and massage parlors in the demimonde of Midtown.

At one point his visitors interrupted him to take a walk and catch their breath. “The characters were so rich, and that’s what it all comes down to,” Mr. Pelecanos recalled. “We just said we have to do this.”

They returned to hear more insider dope about a pivotal moment in American cultural history, when various factors, including changes in the legal definition of obscenity, transformed the sex business into a billion-dollar enterprise. Once a wink-wink commodity kept behind the counter in paper bags, it was now front and center in Times Square, the garish crossroads of the world.


Maggie Gyllenhaal and Lawrence Gilliard Jr., two of the stars of “The Deuce.”

Clement Pascal for The New York Times

To be fair, the Deuce was never exactly demure. Its “naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty” nature was celebrated at least as early as 1932 in the Al Dubin and Harry Warren song “42nd Street.” But Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia eventually closed down the burlesque houses, the dawn of hypnotizing television came soon after, and the district’s theaters devolved into porn palaces, their marquees challenging goofy adolescents like me — on annual trips to some Radio City Music Hall froth — to decode a film title’s lusty pun.

By the mid-70s, dozens of sex-related businesses dominated the seedy bottom of Times Square, reflecting an era of free expression and a city in crisis, its fiscal problems deepening, its crime rate rising. And this man spinning stories for Mr. Pelecanos and Mr. Simon had been in the mix of it all.

They were especially intrigued by how often he deftly sidestepped any responsibility for a coldblooded business that financially benefited a few at the expense of many. He even recommended a theme song for the show, which he would not live to see: “New York, New York.”

“In other words, he had a very romanticized view of his life,” Mr. Pelecanos said. “He never really felt responsible for the attrition around him.”

Their Virgil into this seamy world spoke frankly of the human toll. If the writers asked whatever happened to so-and-so, Mr. Simon said, “The answer was never ‘She married a podiatrist, moved to Scarsdale and had two kids.’”

Let us pause here.

The Times Square of today may be a Disney dystopia, a soul-crushing slice of Midtown where musty Elmo costumes go to die. But the fashionable yearning for the seamier Times Square of yore is to wish for the return of live sex shows, peep-show stalls in constant need of cleaning, men beating women on the street, rampant drug use and underage prostitution.

Yes, those were the days.

But Mr. Simon and Mr. Pelecanos recognized the storytelling potential of those days, and the opportunity to examine so much: the moral implications of economic models, the misogyny, the artistic contributions to music and sensibility, the sexual repression and liberation, the advent of AIDS, the sex-video business shifting to the West Coast, the impact of forever-accessible porn on human interaction and intimacy.

But in taking on New York and the Deuce, the co-creators recognized that among the many pitfalls to avoid was any lapse into what Mr. Simon called “the boys’ version of the sex industry.” He said that the writers, directors and actors engaged in intense, scene-by-scene discussions during the shooting of the first season’s eight episodes. Gay and trans writers contributed to the teleplays, women directed four of the episodes, and Ms. Gyllenhaal, one of the producers, shared her notes on scripts and edits of episodes.

Despite the concerns about prurience, Ms. Gyllenhaal said that she saw multilayered opportunity in the subject matter. If people are somehow aroused by the matter-of-fact portrayal of the porn business, she said, how will they feel when also exposed to the complicated back stories of those who may have just turned them on? Someone, for example, like Candy: a single mother, a daughter, a sister. “Then all of a sudden you’re both feeling and thinking at the same time,” she said. “If we create something that is both things at once, then I think it gets people involved viscerally in the show.”

Yet another hurdle facing “The Deuce” was the need to entice an audience into caring about people whose everyday travails tend not to pull at the heartstrings: a predatory pimp, say, or an amoral manager of a mobbed-up massage parlor. True, the writers had a few real-life characters to work with, including Matthew Ianiello, a.k.a. Matty the Horse, a high-ranking Mafioso who controlled what prosecutors called a “smut cartel” in Times Square. There was also the aforementioned Marty Hodas, whose peep-show success required his lackeys to lug trunks filled with quarters to a bank at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue.

But most characters were conjured through the alchemy of fact and imagination. Pimps bedecked in the royal attire of the street. Fresh-faced women stepping off long-distance buses at the Port Authority. A conscientious but compromised police officer — played by Lawrence Gilliard Jr. — wondering about some vague downtown threat called the Knapp Commission (a panel investigating police corruption). A determined reporter, a gay bartender, a sex-film “director” — all making choices in an unfolding story fraught with foreboding, as the planned three-year program chronicles the changing nature of the sex business through the ‘70s and into the ominous ‘80s.


“The Deuce” has faithfully recreated some of the more notorious Times Square destinations.


James Franco, who directed two of the first season’s episodes, assumes double acting duty as well. He plays Vincent Martino, an ambitious bartender based on the man who had spun enticing tales of the Deuce, and his twin, Frankie, who shares none of his brother’s reservations about working in the sex trade for the mob.

Mr. Simon acknowledged that having twin characters, portrayed by the same actor, might seem like some Janus-faced conceit, but this was fact. “It would have been a willful walking away to make it a single character,” he said. “So once we locked into that, we said, ‘Let’s play that. That’s interesting.’”

Then there is Candy. An independent on the street whose son lives with her parents in the suburbs, she recognizes the opportunity for women like her to share more fully in the profits. And she goes for it.

To prepare for the role, Ms. Gyllenhaal talked to retired prostitutes and porn actresses about the life, including the requisite skill of dissociation. She also read books like “Porno Star,” by the adult film actress Tina Russell, who died at 32 of complications related to alcoholism.

She said she wanted to capture Candy’s resolve to prevail in a man’s world and be in charge of her own desires. In one scene, stemming from a suggestion by Ms. Gyllenhaal, Candy develops a relationship in her private life. She and her new boyfriend have sex, but she doesn’t reach climax. So she masturbates. “It was interesting to think about misogyny from the point of view of a prostitute,” Ms. Gyllenhaal said. “And not just misogyny, but femininity, in terms of sexuality, in terms of art, in terms of money, in terms of intelligence.”

The most consequential character may be the city itself, a New York two generations removed, which the creators and their team have captured through spot-on dialogue, time-specific set designs and atmospherics evoking “The French Connection” and “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.” No bike shares, no artisanal coffee, no sushi; you took the damned subway, you drank bad deli coffee — and if you wanted fresh tuna, you went down to the pungent Fulton Fish Market before dawn.

In “The Deuce,” cigarette smoke clouds the diner. Someone cracks wise about Mayor John V. Lindsay’s presidential ambition. Here, a reference to Ali MacGraw; there, to Angela Davis. And that neon Schaefer sign behind the bar promotes beer, not irony.

One night last October, I watched preparations for a scene from the first season’s last episode. The Village East Cinema on Second Avenue in the East Village had been transformed into the World Theater on West 49th Street, as part of a re-enactment of the premiere in 1972 of the groundbreaking adult film “Deep Throat.” Crew members hung posters trumpeting “The Very Best X Film Ever Made,” according to the venerable Screw magazine. Milling about were actors in all manner of rayon and polyester; parked along the avenue were the boxy and sporty wheels of the ’70s.

Leaning against a Ford Galaxie 500, I recalled a conversation with Mr. Simon about the challenges of telling a fictional story that is deeply embedded in fact. A story, say, about the imagined denizens of a place so outlandish that it, too, seems made up. “Some of it happened,” Mr. Simon said. “Some of it didn’t happen. Some of it might have happened. But all of it could have happened.

“That’s the only rule. All of it could have happened.”

All of this could have happened along the Deuce. And it did.

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