In 'The Deuce,' Sex Isn't Titillating — It's Business David Simon's gritty new drama follows pornography's transition from back-alley pursuit to billion-dollar industry. The sex scenes are transactional, but also explicit, with equal opportunity nudity.
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In 'The Deuce,' Sex Isn't Titillating — It's Business

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In 'The Deuce,' Sex Isn't Titillating — It's Business

In 'The Deuce,' Sex Isn't Titillating — It's Business

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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There's been a fair amount of nostalgia for the 1970s on TV, from shows on the birth of rap music to the Netflix remake of the sitcom "One Day At A Time." And now HBO has a new series set in 1970s New York City.


SHAPIRO: The show is called "The Deuce." And there will be some explicit talk in the review we're about to hear because the series is about how pornography became a legal industry. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says it's a show about sex work that is anything but sexy.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "The Deuce" transports viewers to Times Square in 1971, long before the days when Disney and Bubba Gump Shrimp catered to wide-eyed tourists. Instead, garbage lines the streets where prostitutes and pimps ply their trade. Maggie Gyllenhaal shines as Candy, a streetwalker who works alone, refusing the protection of a pimp despite the best efforts of Rodney, played by rapper Method Man.


METHOD MAN: (As Rodney) Between my expertise and your good looks - shoot, thoroughbred like you, we could own this damn street.

MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) Rodney, sugar, I'm going to keep what I earn. I don't need you. I don't need anybody else. Let me do my thing. You're busting on my groove, Rodney.

DEGGANS: This is the world of "The Deuce," the nickname for West 42nd Street in Midtown. It's a dangerous, volatile place that also becomes a birthplace for the American porn industry once entrepreneurs like Candy realize she and her fellow streetwalkers can make a safer living performing on film. As the show begins, films showing actual sex are illegal in New York, sold in brown paper bags under the counter in sleazy bookstores. But Candy sees the writing on the wall, begging a director to show her how to make sex films.


GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) If they can make and sell that in Europe, it's not going to be long before we can make and sell it here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) How do you know?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) It's America, right? When do we ever leave a dollar for the other guy to pick up?

DEGGANS: "The Deuce" was created by David Simon and George Pelecanos, who worked together on "The Wire," Simon's classic crime drama for HBO. And "The Deuce" is the best new show of the fall season. It offers a visceral, detailed story of how flesh became a commodity in America. Often that process involves the abuse of women by pimps, brothel owners and filmmakers. Gyllenhaal noted during a press conference that the explicit scenes of sex and occasional violence in "The Deuce" are important.


GYLLENHAAL: I think it's become clear in a way that maybe it wasn't totally clear a year ago that there is a huge amount of misogyny in the world. And here we have this opportunity to pick it up and lay it on the table and to do it in a way that's thoughtful and smart and also real. So that includes having to see some things that look violent and uncomfortable.

DEGGANS: The sex in "The Deuce" is never sexy. It's a series of desperate transactions. As Simon said during that press conference, "The Deuce" is trying to tell a story about titillation and misogyny without using those things to draw an audience.


DAVID SIMON: It's the show's reason for being. Now, you know, in America we don't sell a can of beer or a Lincoln Continental without sexual connotation and sexual imagery that encompasses the world of porn that we've inherited.

DEGGANS: Well aware that they were two guys writing about female oppression, Simon and Pelecanos brought in female writers and a female director, "Breaking Bad's" Michelle MacLaren. Gyllenhaal also serves as a producer. James Franco plays two characters, twin brothers based on real guys who owned bars and brothels as frontmen for the mob. Franco plays straight-shooting bar manager Vincent Martino and his charismatic, degenerate gambler of brother, Frankie. Here, they both discuss Vincent's decision to leave his wife, who was cheating on him.


JAMES FRANCO: (As Vincent Martino) I'm done. Out for good.

(As Frankie Martino) You sure?

(As Vincent Martino) Positive.

(As Frankie Martino) I don't want to say nothing bad about your wife, have you two get back together and have you mad at me forever.

(As Vincent Martino) Marriage is dead. Say what you feel.

(As Frankie Martino) Dead.

(As Vincent Martino) Yeah.

(As Frankie Martino) Like, for real, dead.

(As Vincent Martino) I said dead.

(As Frankie Martino) Hundred percent.

(As Vincent Martino) Hundred percent.

(As Frankie Martino) Never going back.

(As Vincent Martino) Yes.

DEGGANS: After a while, Franco makes you forget you're seeing two guys played by one person - really. Ultimately, the characters are the real triumph of "The Deuce" - flawed, compelling examples of the price paid when America's sexual revolution is repurposed to create one of the biggest businesses in the world. I'm Eric Deggans.


CURTIS MAYFIELD: (Singing) Sisters, brothers and the whiteys...

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