THE DEUCE (TV Series, 2017-2019)

Executive produced/co-executive produced by Richard Price

Six episodes written or co-written by Richard Price: S1E2 “Show and Prove” (with George Pelecanos), S1E3 “The Principle Is All” (with David Simon), S1E5 “What Kind of Bad?” (story by Price, teleplay by Will Ralston and Chris Yakaitis), S1E6 “Why Me?” (story by Price and Marc Henry Johnson, teleplay by Johnson), S2E2 “There’s an Art to This,” S2E5 “All You’ll Be Eating Is Cannibals” (with Carl Capotorto)

One of the most memorable sequences in Richard Price’s 1976 sophomore novel Bloodbrothers (as I noted in my original review) depicts the protagonist’s uncle Chubby going on a drunken late night rampage in Times Square after being insulted by a young panhandler:

Taxis flew by in the street. Yellow blurs. Bruce Lee devastated a cardboard enemy across the way. Chubby lifted the kid with one hand, thumb digging into the soft flesh under the chin… Two hands slapped down on Chubby’s shoulders, yanking him away. Chubby wheeled around, ducked, came up swinging from the ground. A 300-pound fist smacked into open crotch. Chubby backed off, lowered his head and charged, ramming the crippled cop into a woman into a newsstand in a splash of girlie magazines and newspapers… Screeching tires. Screams. The neon bubbled furiously around the marquees. Chubby looked up at the stars. The woman buried under hundreds of Daily Newses screamed for blood. Chubby saw the word “SURCHARGE” in all the headlines. The cop was unconscious. The news dealer stood there in thick glasses and a white apron. Chubby sniffed, buttoned his shirt and pushed through the crowd down into the subway station.

This delirious passage gives a sense of how essential the grimy New York City of the 1960s and ’70s was to the atmosphere of Price’s first four novels. And though he relocated his books to the fictional New Jersey city of Dempsy beginning with 1992’s Clockers, he returned to the Big Apple with his two most recent novels, 2008’s Lush Life and 2015’s The Whites, both of which were primarily concerned with how much the city had changed since its 20th-century bad old days. He was therefore a perfect fit for The Deuce, David Simon and George Pelecanos’s HBO series about the NYC sex trade of the 1970s and ’80s and its implications for the broader transformations of the city.

The Deuce‘s recreation of Times Square, 1971

Simon is best-known as the co-creator of The Wire, the Baltimore crime epic for which Price was eventually recruited as a writer (and which served as my introduction to Price’s work). After that series concluded, Simon moved on to several other HBO projects illustrating different manifestations of the American empire’s decline: Generation Kill (the invasion of Iraq), Treme (post-Katrina New Orleans) and Show Me a Hero (public housing in Yonkers, New York). As detailed in this episode of the Rialto Report podcast, the idea for The Deuce actually began with a Treme assistant location manager, Marc Henry Johnson, who was introduced through mutual acquaintances to a man named Steve Dagrosa who claimed to have worked in New York’s mafia-dominated ’70s vice scene alongside his twin brother Johnny. In 2012 Johnson pitched the concept of a TV show based on the Dagrosas and their contemporaries to Simon. The project ultimately came to fruition in 2017 as The Deuce, with the twins fictionalized as “Vincent and Frankie Martino,” both played by James Franco. The story expanded to encompass a vast ensemble (as Simon’s shows tend to do), including Maggie Gyllenhaal and Emily Meade as sex workers turned porn auteur and star, respectively; Gary Carr as a calculating pimp; Chris Coy as a gay club owner; The Wire‘s Lawrence Gilliard Jr. as a relatively straight-arrow cop; and Luke Kirby as an ambitious city bureaucrat, to name just a few. (In a tragic echo of the show’s hedonistic subject matter, Johnson was sentenced to a year in prison not long before The Deuce‘s premiere for his involvement in a woman’s fatal drug overdose.)

James Franco as Frankie and Vincent Martino

As always in the collaborative medium of television, it’s impossible to know comprehensively which parts of the show were contributed by Richard Price. When I interviewed him in 2016 he described a Deuce script he had just written being broken into sections which were divided up among multiple episodes: “[H]alf of what I wrote really belongs in [Episode] 3, some of 3 needs to come down, some of 1 needs to come into 2, so, you know, check your ego at the door.” In a general sense, though, Price’s role in the writers’ room seems to have been to keep the material grounded. On the occasion of the show’s launch, Simon told Newsweek that “Richard is the ballast in the room. Whenever we’re lost in a scene about the nature of pornography and what we want to say about it politically, someone has to bring us back. ‘You’re making a speech,’ Richard will say. ‘I know what you’re trying to do, but I’m down here with the human beings.'” This fits with the tone of Price’s novels, in which his characters’ more grandiose or sentimental inclinations are always undercut by the messiness of real life. In fact, in the audio commentary for the pilot episode, Simon notes that the comic detail of a police officer with a misprinted name tag (“FLANAGA” instead of “FLANAGAN”) was added by Price.

But beyond his storytelling instincts, Price could also boast a familiarity with the subject matter. He grew up in the Bronx and spent his own youth visiting Times Square, and in that same Newsweek article he quipped “If only I could get all those peep show quarters back from HBO for research.” Certain scenes in the show echo moments from his novels which were themselves probably drawn from his experiences: For example, college dropout Abby’s stint doing telemarketing for an exercise device called the “Power Plower” is directly out of Price’s 1983 book The Breaks. Martino brother-in-law Bobby’s union construction job (and specifically his heart attack-inducing conflict with a younger worker who wants to move on to bigger and better things) is more vaguely reminiscent of the milieu surrounding Bloodbrothers protagonist Stony de Coco. And while Price himself was never a cop or professional criminal, his research-driven familiarity with crime seems to have come in handy here also: Simon borrowed several scenes from Price’s 1992 Drug War novel Clockers for The Wire, and he understandably couldn’t resist going back to that well by having a Deuce homicide detective coach a pre-adolescent suspect through an exculpatory backstory just as Rocco Klein did in the book.

Abby (Margarita Levieva) makes calls for the Power Plower

The Deuce also features several signature phrases that recur throughout Price’s oeuvre and serve to highlight his themes and sensibility, including:

• Pimp Rodney compares the cops’ roundups of Times Square sex workers to “sweeping leaves on a windy day,” a Sisyphean analogy that’s also shown up in Price’s 1998 novel FreedomlandThe Wire, and his CBS cop show NYC 22.

• A college student considering a creative writing master’s degree says his father told him “Anybody who’d write a poem would suck a dick,” a line which has appeared in Lush Life and The Whites and which also seems based on Price’s own experience: As he told Vanity Fair in 1992, “Coming from where I did, it was like if you’d write a poem you’d probably suck a dick.”

• Civil servant Gene Goldman says “God’s a second-rate novelist,” one of Price’s favorite aphorisms, though it’s often quoted as “God is not a second-rate novelist” or “God’s a first-rate novelist.” Seems fair to say that God is a prolific novelist with an inconsistent track record–the opposite of Price himself!

Gene Goldman (Luke Kirby) and Chris Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.)

Again, I’m focusing on these more familiar lines because they’re the ones that I can reliably connect to Price himself. But the show overall definitely reflects his eye for detail and his ear for dialogue. For example, when one pimp tries to illustrate his superiority over another by arguing “He ain’t curious about the human condition. I’m curious about that shit all day,” I don’t know whether or not Price wrote that particular line (though it appears in one of the episodes he’s credited on), but it’s funny enough that he could have. The sort of precise craftsmanship that produces such a moment is present not just in the dialogue but throughout the production, from the set design to the performances, and it’s a big part of why The Deuce is, to me, so effective. I think it’s a more successful treatment of the same themes David Simon was trying to articulate in Treme, and while I wouldn’t put it on par with The Wire, it may be the most compulsively entertaining show he’s ever made. The characters are appealing and the individual scenes are consistently compelling while still building a long-term narrative that gets richer as it goes on. Also, amidst our current glut of period pieces (particularly ones set in the 1980s, which The Deuce covers in its third season), this series stands out for presenting an artificial era which feels authentic rather than idealized (note how much the earlier episodes are strewn with dingy ’60s cultural detritus) and which allows its setting to serve as a backdrop rather than being a fetishized end in and of itself.

However, the full story of The Deuce involves not just its aesthetic success or failure but also its own real-world engagement with the issues it addressed. From the show’s inception, Simon was clearly aware of the potential pitfalls of a story about sexual exploitation being told largely by male showrunners. (Four of The Deuce‘s six executive producers over the course of its run–Simon, Franco, Pelecanos and Price–were men, while two–Nina Kostroff Noble and Michelle MacLaren–were women. Credited writers were also predominantly male, though most of the show’s directors were female.) He spoke of avoiding “the boys’ version of the sex industry” and apparently was so adamant in the writers’ room about avoiding titillation that in 2016 Price told The Guardian “David is so sensitive sometimes I wanna kill him.” But this commitment to allyship was tested in January of 2018, between the show’s first and second seasons, when James Franco (who directed several episodes in addition to starring and executive producing) was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. The allegations, which Franco denied, included intimidating actresses into performing sexual material on camera, pressuring his girlfriend for oral sex, and sexually pursuing underage girls.

Franco was ultimately retained on the show, with Simon stating that “We have no complainant or complaint or any awareness of any incident of concern involving Mr. Franco… In our experience, he was entirely professional as an actor, director, and producer.” The show subsequently made headlines for hiring an intimacy coordinator to oversee its sex scenes, though most of the coverage seemed to studiously avoid mentioning Franco. On the occasion of the series’ conclusion, Simon expressed anger over the whole controversy: “I thought a lot of people were pretty hyperbolic, because on a very basic level, what James is dealing with — and it’s meaningful — it’s not what we’re seeing in the other cases involving #MeToo. It simply isn’t.” Reviews of the show remained largely positive throughout its run, but the Franco issue unavoidably affected how it was received and discussed. As Slate critic Inkoo Kang put it, “the #MeToo allegations against the actor tarnished the series’ significant feminist ambitions.” Viewership declined significantly over the series’ three seasons, though it’s anyone’s guess how much that was driven by controversy rather than by other factors, such as HBO and its audience shifting to more blockbuster-style programming like Game of Thrones.

Richard Price’s involvement in the show seems to have lessened over time as well. He was credited as an executive producer on the pilot, but that title was changed to “co-executive producer” starting with Episode 2. He retained the co-EP title for the rest of the series’ run, but after writing or co-writing two episodes each in the first two seasons (and getting “Story by” credit or co-credit on two additional episodes in Season 1), he had no writing credits in the final year. And while that Newsweek profile heralding the show’s launch put him on more or less equal footing with Simon and Pelecanos, by Season 3 The New York Times was interviewing Simon and Pelecanos alone. I don’t know how actively involved Price still was at that point, or why his role wasn’t as visible, but my guess is that he may eventually have been busy working on his HBO adaptation of Stephen King’s The Outsider, which premiered just a few months after The Deuce concluded.

Nevertheless, Price’s contributions to the show were clearly significant, and it remains a striking example of how effective he can be when working as part of a team that measures up to his own abilities. In our glut of sterile prestige TV it can be easy to forget how much potential there is in this medium’s unique form of collaborative long-form storytelling, and how rewarding it can be when done well.

A few other notes:

• In addition to Lawrence Gilliard Jr., The Deuce features many other former cast members of The Wire, including Chris Bauer, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Cliff “Method Man” Smith, Anwan Glover, Clarke Peters, Michael Kostroff, Domenick Lombardozzi, and Price’s daughter Genevieve Hudson-Price. The Night Of‘s Don Harvey and Mustafa Shakir show up in significant roles as well. However, as far as I can tell, Price himself never made one of his traditional onscreen cameos here.

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Genevieve Hudson-Price in The Deuce

• The mob enforcer character “Tommy Longo” may have been named after Robert Longo, artist and director of the short film “Arena Brains,” which Price co-wrote and acted in.

This Dallas Observer article has a little more information about the brothers who inspired the show’s story.

• My intention with this blog has been to review new Richard Price works a year after they’ve been fully released, which in the case of The Deuce would’ve meant posting my take on October 28, 2020. Obviously I didn’t hit that target, due to distractions both personal and pandemic-related. (Ironically, the show’s concluding flash-forward to May of 2019 now feels as distant from our current moment as the episodes set in the ’70s do.) My apologies! We’re now less than a week away from the one-year anniversary of the last episode of The Outsider, Price’s next project after The Deuce, but despite HBO’s decision not to move forward with another season, I’m going to wait and see if that show gets picked up by a different platform before reviewing it.

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