Fans of David Simon’s The Wire won’t be surprised that the pilot episode of The Deuce lacks a singular inciting event designed to ensure audience retention. In the place of narrative hooks, the episode thoroughly maps the ecosystem of vice that was 1970s New York City, and beckons us to explore a ruinous Times Square alongside a sprawling cast of vibrant characters.
With the same journalistic attention to detail and novelistic breadth that typified The Wire, Simon and his writers introduce five pimps, five prostitutes, two cops, and two James Francos alongside a significant number of ancillary characters. A bartender and a night owl who jaunts through Times Square greeting hookers by name and nodding cheerfully at cops, Vincent (Franco) connects most of these individuals: diner cooks, night managers, bookies, and bar regulars. “Pilot” announces Vincent as an ambitious smooth-talker with an air of easy contentment before quickly stripping away his quintessential barman’s façade in scenes that reveal the man’s crumbling private life.
Vincent and his daily grind are front and center throughout the first episode of The Deuce. Between bar shifts, he’s routinely confronted with the brazen infidelity of his wife, Andrea (Zoe Kazan), and the viewer comes to see his rock-star bartender persona as the disguise of a struggling cuckold. His two lives appear in gut-punching relief when scenes of Vincent joyfully tending a packed bar precede snapshots of his desolate home life. It’s easy to sympathize when Vincent leaves his family’s Brooklyn home for a spartan Times Square hotel, and it’s easier still to root for him as he resolves to transcend his role as a bartender and renews an interest in bar management.
The episode realizes Times Square with breathtaking verisimilitude, from blinding marquees emblazoned with the names of period-accurate film titles, to billboards hawking forgotten tobacco and booze brands. Vincent drifts toward the neighborhood’s neon glow reflexively, like a moth to a giant flame—or maybe a bug zapper, as the various pimps, prostitutes, gamblers, and burnouts who flood the streets face potential ruin from their chosen vice.
One of those street crawlers is Candi (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a prostitute working without a pimp and who’s squirreling cash away for a son, Adam (Finn Robbins), she rarely sees and who lives with her mother, Joan (Carolyn Mignini). Just as Simon painstakingly illustrated the tedium of policing and selling drugs in The Wire, he’s thorough when examining the minutiae in Candi’s work. She greets other prostitutes with the sympathetic platitudes of a world-weary day laborer, and together they gripe with jocular bitterness about overbearing bosses, lame customers, and slow business.
In a provocative scene that’s emblematic of The Deuce’s depiction of sex work, Candi helps a young client out of his pants and the camera lingers, ever so briefly, on her hand holding his penis. The surprising graphicness on display isn’t meant to arouse: The room is depressing, the man is awkward, and the earlier conversations between Candi and her colleagues prevent us from viewing the scene as anything but a transaction.
Unimpeded by the businesslike proceedings and gritty atmosphere, the john finishes his business in seconds before asking for a free encore. Instantly, Candi alters her disposition, rejecting his plea with canny professionalism just moments after sweetly cooing to him. Her refusal employs a breed of simple, inarguable metaphor that will be familiar to fans of Simon’s work: Surely a decisive car buyer and one in need of convincing still pay the dealer the same amount, right? Candi’s comparison, between hooker and car salesman, recalls the Chess and Chicken Nugget allegories in early episodes of The Wire, and suggests that Simon views both ’70s-era Times Square and Baltimore’s drug trade as inevitable ecosystems powered by the overlooked.
Candi may be selling the car in her allegory, but three predatory pimps who try to recruit her—Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe), C.C. (Gary Carr), and Rodney (Method Man)—own the lots. Just as The Wire illustrated the bureaucracy of the drug business, pimps in The Deuce are the managerial class of the sex industry, and the show’s pilot episode illustrates both their work and play. In a purely comic scene, these pimps gregariously rib each other at a shoe-shine stand; in the presence of their girls, they vacillate between sticky sweetness and cold menace—whichever earns more money.
Elsewhere, “Pilot” introduces a foil for Times Square squalor in Abby (Margarita Levieva), an NYU student with a distinct air of privileged naïveté. Or so it seems: When she beds her professor, we see a bored young woman desperate for excitement, and when she’s arrested scoring speed in Hell’s Kitchen, she’s a thrill-seeker unshaken by the dark margins of the Big Apple. By chance, she spends a night at Vincent’s bar, bantering wittily with its owner, who suggests she would make a promising bartender, echoing the ways and means of the pimps on the street. Abby’s wry smile when ditching an exam after her night in the bar is an early suggestion that she is, like Vincent, one more drifter intoxicated by the possibilities of society’s fringe.
The episode introduces outsiders striving for success in their own illicit framework, who understand that control is attainable even if contentment seems impossible. Vincent seizes it by moving out, and Candi maintains it by forgoing a pimp, but the episode’s conclusion reminds us that they can’t control their dangerous environment. After Vincent spies C.C. brutally punishing a prostitute in the stairwell of the hotel where his ladies sleep with their johns, he cheerfully greets Vincent by name in the hallway. A wave of melancholic recognition passes over Vincent, as he’s briefly confronted with the brutality of his new world, and the fact that his dreams for prosperity and significance are now rooted in a world that often resembles a nightmare.