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August 21, 2017

Once Upon A Time In Times Square

Seedier days in New York City come back to life in HBO’s The Deuce.

Ann Farmer
  • James Franco plays a double role as bartender Vincent and his identical twin, Frankie.

    Paul Schiraldi
  • George Pelecanos (right) on location with Gbenga Akinnagbe as the pimp Larry Brown.

    Paul Schiraldi

In an early scene in the new HBO series The Deuce, two pimps sit in the Port Authority bus station in Times Square, gauging the hooker potential of women walking past, some fresh off the bus.

“Could you break her?” asks Gary Carr as C.C., sporting a James Brown- style perm, a pinstriped bell-bottom suit, frilly cuffs and a dandy cane as he eyes a serious-looking gal.

“I ain’t met one yet that couldn’t be broke,” boasts Reggie Love (Tarik Trotter), his face obscured by aviator sunglasses and a godfather hat atop a coiffed afro.

It’s 1971. Hippies are practicing free love, the Vietnam War is raging and New York City is in an economic nosedive. Times Square, in particular, has hit the skids; it’s teeming with prostitutes, drug dealers and other bottom feeders, including cops willing to look the other way for the right sum.

Thus it is the perfect tee-off for the show’s co-creator–executive producers: David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun police reporter who conceived the critically lauded HBO series The Wire, Treme and Show Me a Hero, which share a common theme of inner-city institutional dysfunction, and George Pelecanos, the acclaimed crime-fiction author who previously collaborated with Simon on Treme and The Wire.

The Deuce explores the rise of the porn industry in Times Square during the ‘70s and ‘80s and correlating social ills, including police corruption, crime stemming from the drug trade, the emerging AIDS crisis and the unassailable appetite of the New York City real estate market, which sought to reclaim those valuable few acres. The first season, comprised of eight episodes, is set to debut September 10.

Capturing the grim, smutty world of pornography, however, wasn’t something that Simon and Pelecanos were initially  drawn to. “It’s something very hard to pull off without being exploitive,” says Pelecanos, explaining that he and Simon were swayed by someone (whose name is intentionally withheld) who ran a mobbed-up bar in Times Square during that epoch and wanted to talk to them about it.

“He had a real live-and-let-live attitude,” says Pelecanos, who, along  with Simon, sat down for one engaging anecdote after the other. The man  had welcomed all kinds to his bar — pimps, whores, gays, straights and transvestites. He swept in so much money that the mob next put him in charge of running massage parlors (as fronts for prostitution).

“He presented such a rich cast of characters — real people that he knew, with natural arcs,” says Pelecanos, that the writers exited the meeting, looked at each other, and said, “We should pursue this.”

The show, in fact, features their source as the (initially) beleaguered bartender, Vincent Martino, and his devil-may-care identical twin, Frankie. Both are played by James Franco, who extracted two distinct personalities from his sleeve and pulled nifty 180s whenever they were in the same scene.

Michelle MacLaren — who directed the pilot and finale, and also served as an executive producer — says she’d usually ask Franco to start with Frankie, the more adrenalized of the twins. She explains: “So I’m not restricting the movement of the more gregarious character.”

All the characters are grounded in some kind of truth. “Everybody is based on somebody,” says Pelecanos, including the colorful array of prostitutes and their individual plights. “We talked a lot about making sure all the girls had different reasons for being there,” MacLaren adds.

The assortment features a sharp-witted single mom, Candy (her street moniker), depicted by a charismatic Maggie Gyllenhaal, who fearlessly tackles graphic scenes, including an encounter with a virginal young man who’s clearly out of his element.

Although ample flesh is on display, viewers might be surprised by how unsexy this line of work actually is. Some of the women have convinced themselves that they need a pimp to prod them into turning tricks. Candy, however, takes a dim view of that arrangement. Nobody’s making money off her lady parts, she declares, “but me.”

The show shies from making judgment calls or villainizing characters, Pelecanos says. “Even the pimps,” he offers. “They may be hard to like, but we humanize them.” A pimp might wear a snazzy suit, he explains, but upon closer look, “you’ll see that the cuff is frayed.” No one, in fact, seems to be making a lot of money unless parked farther up the food chain.

Re-creating “the deuce” — a somewhat forgotten term for the two-block section of Forty-Second Street between Sixth and Eighth avenues — presented a particular production challenge.

In 1971, Times Square was notoriously seedy, swarming with peep shows, adult theaters and women (and men) tottering about in spiky heels, pink feather boas and scanty outfits. But the porn industry on that stretch has subsequently been jet-washed away. New developments and tourist attractions have rendered it, as some critics say, “Disney-fied.”

Even locating a sufficiently barren-looking location to masquerade as Times Square (which they eventually found in northern Manhattan) wasn’t easy, says MacLaren, because the city has since been blanketed under greenery as part of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tree-planting initiative.

The old Port Authority, as well, has long since faded away. That early scene, in which the two pimps boast about controlling their fiefdoms, was shot at a cruise line pier.

It’s a compelling scene. It opens with the men rambling about the Vietnam quagmire, momentarily thrusting the viewer outside the Times Square hustle. “He’s acting like a mother-f—king fox,” says Reggie, referring to then-President Richard Nixon, whom he thinks can win the war if he just ups his threats, much the way Reggie does with his coterie of prostitutes to scare them into serving more customers.

“Shit. If I were him, I’d be flashing nuclear weapons and shit,” Reggie continues. “Yeah, Nixon know what he doing in Vietnam, bro. He know the game.” 

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2017

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