Review: HBO’s ‘The Deuce’ Works a Vibrant Hustle in the Naked City

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There are a million ways this idea could have gone south, with two men (Mr. Simon and his co-creator George Pelecanos) telling a story of sexploitation in the era of blaxploitation. One danger is prurience, the Achilles’ groin of HBO series like “Game of Thrones.” The other is a high-minded, punitive bleakness.

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“The Deuce” is savvy about the problem and solves it organically. It makes its characters people before they’re bodies or concepts. It’s not fun, exactly, but it has a menschy, working-stiff sense of humor. The nudity is copious and graphic but matter-of-fact and close to equal-opportunity. (The show may well set an HBO penis record.)

Women directed half the episodes, including Michelle MacLaren (“Breaking Bad”) on the pilot and the finale. The value of the female gaze behind the camera is echoed in Candy’s story, as she learns the ropes of porn production.

Above all, “The Deuce” operates on a clarifying principle: Sex work is work. It has labor-management issues, logistics, legal hassles, risk-reward calculations and hierarchies. It’s exploitative and sometimes deadly in a way most jobs aren’t. But at heart, it’s pure capitalism: desire quantified in $20 bills and in the quarters pumped into peep-show booths.

The first episode puts it plainly when a client asks Candy for a second round free after he completes his end of the transaction prematurely. You wouldn’t ask a car dealer to give you two cars for the price of one, she says: “This is my job.”

Ms. Gyllenhaal’s performance is canny and layered: a freelancer with no pimp, Candy has to entice clients and manage them, one eye on the future, one on the next 30 minutes.

The show’s other big name is James Franco, playing identical twins: Vincent, a hardworking barkeep, and Frankie, a hard-gambling black sheep. (In a neat trick, one Mr. Franco snatches a wad of bills out of the other Mr. Franco’s hand.) There’s little to distinguish them physically — they have shared custody of Burt Reynolds’s mustache — so Mr. Franco does it with attitude: Vincent schleps a fifty-pound sack of worries that the carefree Frankie has been filling up all his life.

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Mr. Franco is more the show’s fulcrum than its star. Vincent’s bar is home base for a vast demimonde ensemble: mobsters, cops, pimps, pornographers, construction workers, streetwalkers and the post-Stonewall gay community. The story also folds in a Camus-quoting N.Y.U. dropout (Margarita Levieva) and Sandra (Natalie Paul), a reporter doing an investigation on prostitution.

A trailer for “The Deuce.” HBO

“The Deuce” is a textbook demonstration of how to set up multiple character threads. But man, is there a lot of setup, and the porn story line — ostensibly the subject of the entire series — has barely started by the time the eight-episode first season ends.

TV is full of dramas that take ages to become the thing they’re about; see, recently, “Snowfall” and “Ozark.” This is less a problem for “The Deuce” because it’s so rich with voice. This should be a lesson for peak-TV storytellers: Get the characters right first, and viewers will float you some credit for the plot.

What “The Deuce” has from the get-go is filthy, vibrant, indomitable life. Most of the action is conversation. A pair of pimps liken Richard Nixon’s Vietnam brinkmanship to their own management style. Early standout performances include Lawrence Gilliard Jr. (“The Wire”) as a possibly too-honest cop and Dominique Fishback (“Show Me a Hero”) as Darlene, a wily prostitute with a sentimental streak.

The period detail is impressive, but there’s no romanticism for dirty old New York or easy-in-hindsight superiority. “The Deuce” simply assumes that in any decade and any line of work, people are people.

But its people are also part of larger structures that are just as important. Sandra voices this idea late in the season, when her editor wants to ax a portion about police corruption from her exposé. “You cut out everything that makes the city a part of it, and what’s left?” she asks. “A human-interest story.”

The exchange may be a little-self-aware, but it’s well-earned. “The Deuce” is more than human interest. But it is human above all, and it’s relentlessly interesting.

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