The Deuce means business. Literally — "the deuce" refers to the city blocks in midtown where the porn industry flourished, so we're talking the business of bodies. But on a figurative level, the show isn't really here to get pretty for you. The wigs look cheap, the dialogue is direct (sometimes to a cringeworthy degree) and the accents a crude New York staccato. Even the opening credits look like the poster for Rent — la vie boheme, viewers!
The very first episode, directed by legendary Game of Thrones director Michelle MacLaren, who also executive produces the series, begins with your basic money shakedown: Vincent (James Franco) gets mugged just after he's "dropped" the night cash from one of his two jobs. It's great exposition, really. Vincent gets a chance to tell us a bit about himself — He has two kids at home! Don't kill him! — and he earns a bloody punch on the forehead. (This will help later in the episode when we need to distinguish Vinnie from his brother Frankie, also played by Franco. Think of it as The Deuce's version of Clay's yellowing scar on 13 Reasons Why.)
He then heads home, where we find out he's got a wife, too. Only she's not home — she's out at some bar, and Vinny is not happy about that. The kids, it seem, matter very little in this universe. The '70s were before the era of precious children, I guess.
Next, we meet the pimps. Reggie Love (Tariq Trotter) and C.C. (Gary Carr) are discussing President Nixon's strategy while they wait at the bus station for "product," as C.C. calls it. The important pimps in this show are as follows: Reggie Love, C.C., Rodney (Method Man), and Larry Brown (Gbenga Akinnagbe). For the time being, C.C. and Reggie Love are the focus. Their conversation serves, like Vincent's mugging monologue, to introduce the idea of pimping. Reggie Love thinks Nixon's basically a pimp — the President doesn't really want to burn Vietnam to the ground, but he wants the rest of the world to think he might. Similarly, a pimp is all bluff. But the bluff's all you need to protect your "product."
Enter: Lori (Emily Meade), a know-it-all from Minnesota who's ready to take NYC by storm. Is it plausible that a woman would move to New York to "make it" as a sex worker? We'll say sure, for now. C.C. immediately picks up Lori with an offer of "breakfast." New product coming down the line!
From the depths of Port Authority, we move to the hallowed halls of N.Y.U., where kids are learning about etymological fallacies. (Etymological fallacy: When you make a false assumption about a word based on its origin, or etymology.) This is all to say that Abby (Margarita Levieva) is the "educated" one of this cast of characters. She's the one who knows what it means to "objectify" women. She's also sleeping with her professor, because this show is about sex! Like the other characters, though, she has a blasé attitude towards coitus. She laughs when her professor comes because his face looked funny. He's offended, but she's more invested in reciting Latin she's learned in class.
When Vincent and Abby meet later in the episode, we see that she's perhaps not all that interested in Latin and econ classes. She arrives there by way of a drug pickup gone awry — her lazy friends didn't study for the exam, and have a need for speed (to cram). They send her as their drug scout, and she's the one who ends up at the police station for her crimes. Luckily, she's young and cute and the police officer Flanagan (Don Harvey) takes her to Vincent's bar. Abby, meet Vincent. Vincent, meet Abby.
Vincent, at this point, has had the savvy idea to dress the waitresses at the bar in leotards — bodysuits, for those who've never encountered that word. The bar is flailing, and the owner Kim (James Saito) is in despair. Ergo, the waitresses should dress like Playboy bunnies. It's a roaring success because the women can be ogled by the patrons.
Abby points out the women are being objectified, to which Vincent replies, "Object-a-who?" Their rapport is just — mwah!
Vincent's bar struggles are important, because Frankie (also James Franco, this time without a scar) owes a lot of money to one Tommy Longo (Daniel Sauli). He owes $30k, and that number rises to $32k during the episode. Vincent is being held accountable for his wayward brother, whom he claims is off somewhere in Vietnam fighting in the military. (He's not! He's here in NYC, ready to twin with Vinnie.) By the end of the episode, Vinny comes to the conclusion that he'll pay $20k of his brother's debt, shelling out $1,000 per week from his job at the bar.
Money: It's the only thing that matters in The Deuce.
Meanwhile, C.C. courts Lori for his services at his local diner, which puts Ashley (Jamie Neumann) in a funk. Ashley is C.C.'s girlfriend and employee — an H.R. nightmare if you ever did see one. Lori, C.C. and Ashley aside, the diner's a rich place. That's where we meet Rodney, Larry Brown, and Darlene (Dominique Fishback), who has a lot of regular customers.
Darlene works for Larry Brown, who, according to Ruby/Thunder Thighs, looks for girls with daddy issues. She's also the youngest and least jaded of the girls, it seems. (Lori, despite her newness, is just clamoring to look cool.) She wears her hair in pigtails and seems to have a teasing friendship with Vincent. Her regulars have out-of-the-ordinary requests. One, who returns biweekly for a $100 session, "pretends" to slam Darlene into the wall and rape her. I say "pretend" because he accidentally bruises Darlene's cheek this episode, and Larry Brown isn't pleased. When does pretend become reality? One wonders.
Her other regular, Louis (John B. McCann), just wants to sit and watch movies. Tonight, they're watching A Tale of Two Cities, a movie Darlene's never seen. Louis appears to enjoy watching Darlene enjoy the movie — she's in tears by the end of it. It's another sort of "pretend." Louis wants a movie night companion. Again, "pretend" is questionable. They have a friendly relationship, and even when Darlene half-heartedly offers a handjob for his payment, Louis refuses.
Ruby works for Rodney, if we're keeping score, and Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) works for no one. This is bonkers, according to most of the people in the show. Rodney especially is convinced Candy is going to get herself killed without a pimp to protect her. But remember — pimps are like Richard Nixon, they do a lot more bluffing than they do protecting.
Candy would rather run her business herself, and she does. When a nervous teen named Stuart asks for double the blowjobs for the price of one, Candy refuses. She compares herself to a car salesman: Would you sell someone a car at a lower price because he purchased the car faster than another customer? Absolutely not.
Candy's real name is Eileen, we learn, and she has a son. He lives out in the suburbs and loves Marilyn Monroe. When Candy goes to visit him, she's a different woman. Her hair — a shock of cotton candy curls — is gone, replaced by a tame brown bob, and she's wearing a pencil skirt. Her son is proof of life beyond money. Candy's got a reason to keep making all this money; she has to send her kid to college eventually. (This is something Kim, the restaurant owner, also mentions in the episode. It's a little bizarre in a period piece to hear parents complaining about college tuition, something that feels vaguely modern.)
The crux of the episode is Vinnie's exodus from Brooklyn, which heralds a new era of Vinnie. For a while, he was a family man, commuting across the river to feed his kids. But when his wife Andrea (played by a starkly out-of-place Zoe Kazan) pushes him to the brink by doing, erm, I don't know what exactly, he moves out. It seems that Andrea cheated. Vinnie's also cheating, to be fair, with Ellen the redheaded bartender, but it's worse when she does it. The two have a long heart-to-heart on a park bench during which they both seem wistful for what could have been. Their chemistry is like saliva — sticky and unsexy. The kids, apparently, are less important than making that money to pay Frankie's debt, so Vinnie moves out.
Vinnie then takes a room at the same pay-by-the-hour hotel where our main characters conduct business. The rooms are $10 an hour, as we learn from Candy, who's priced at $30 per ride. Now, we've arrived. All the important characters are in one place.
Also important is Frankie's huffing-and-puffing entrance. He's not in Vietnam! Nope, he's alive and well in NYC, busy making more bets. He's a more blustery version of Vincent, all charisma and no follow-through. Vinnie snatches $4k off his brother, just enough to buy Frankie a "week or two" from Tommy Longo. They both regress to boyhood brothers for the scene, and it gives a nice perspective. Vinnie, in Frankie's eyes, is the "working stiff."
"Ma ruined you," Vinnie says in response. Still, they're friends. When Vinnie says he walked out on his wife, Frankie requests 100% verification on the divorce. He doesn't want to trash talk Andrea and then have his brother go running back to her. When he gets the go-ahead, he has some sweet slut-shaming words for Andrea — something about having pricks stuck out of her like a porcupine.
Poor Andrea. She just wants to play pool! It's likely she'll return, but for now, she's stuck in Brooklyn while Vinnie hangs out with the industry power players at his pay-by-the-hour hotel.
This means that when C.C. "bluffs," Vinnie bears witness. Ashley doesn't want to work because it's raining. C.C. pulls her to a secluded place so they can talk. Talking means "threatening Ashley a switchblade while she shivers and cries" and "secluded place" means the stairwell at the hotel. Vinnie overhears — he's post-coitus with Ellen, the redheaded bartender — and ventures into the hallway, as if to do something. He doesn't, though. So much for "working stiff" and all-around good guy.
Vinnie knows C.C., and the pimp greets Vincent cordially after he leaves Ashley sobbing in the stairwell. Welcome to life in the Deuce, Vinnie.
The Winning Deuce-Bag:
This week's Deuce-bag award goes to Stuart, the (probably) suburban teen who convinced his friends to pool all their money so he could get a blowjob in Times Square. Shame on you, Stuart, for using your grandmother's birthday check for a second blowjob. I would also like to personally congratulate the use of a train-as-penis metaphor immediately following Stuart's premature ejaculation.
Honorable mention goes to Abby's pack of perpetually high friends, who ditched her when the cops came.
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