HBO’s ‘The Deuce’ chronicles pornography’s rise in the ’70s

If you’re HBO, where do you go once you’ve played the sex-and-dragons card?

Straight into porn.

Premiering at 9 p.m. Sunday, “The Deuce” chronicles hard-core pornography’s crawl out of the backrooms of Times Square, long before the arrival of the Disney Store and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.

The dramatic series has everything you could want in a prestige project from the premium channel. It’s a period piece, kicking off in 1971, with a fantastic look. Maggie Gyllenhaal produces and co-stars as a prostitute looking to get off the streets. James Franco executive produces, directs a couple of episodes and plays twins. (Twins!) And it’s co-created by HBO’s poet laureate, David Simon, who, in addition to “Treme,” “Show Me a Hero,” “Generation Kill” and “The Corner,” brought you a little show called “The Wire.”

What’s that? You somehow still haven’t seen “The Wire”? Clear your schedule, watch it immediately, and come back to read this in 60 hours or so. Seriously, it’s that good.

Anyway, back to “The Deuce.”

Named for the local slang for 42nd Street, the series, like much of Simon’s work, focuses on a dozen or more colorful characters as they grind out an existence in a world most of us have never known.

Frankie Martino (Franco), has gambling debts all over the city. His brother, Vincent (Franco), is a barman with a flair for promotion. So when they can’t find Frankie, underlings of mafia captain Rudy Pipilo (Michael Rispoli) inform Vincent that he’s responsible for Frankie’s losses.

The longer the mobsters deal with Vincent, the more impressed they become, until Rudy gives Vincent a foreclosed gay bar to run in any way he sees fit. The rechristened Hi-Hat becomes a gathering place for pimps and their girls, making it a little like Cheers, except hardly anyone knows your real name.

Candy (Gyllenhaal), meanwhile, is an independent contractor, refusing to work for any of “The Deuce’s” multitude of vividly crafted pimps. When she’s asked to fill in for a friend during a scene in a porno, she becomes intrigued with the production side of the business.

Abby (Margarita Levieva), an NYU dropout, settles for a job waitressing at the Hi-Hat and immediately classes up the joint. When Vincent first starts luring big crowds by dressing the staff in leotards, Abby asks if he’s ever wondered what it’s like for the girls to be objectified like that. Vincent’s response: “Object-a-who?” Priceless.

And a David Simon series wouldn’t be complete without his twin passions: corruption and journalism. After a series of suspicious commands, beat cop Chris Alston (“The Wire” alum Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) begins questioning his superiors’ motives. This brings him in contact with a young reporter (Natalie Paul) working on an expose of the sex industry.

As in many of Simon’s projects, it takes a while for some of the characters to come into focus. But that’s largely because his shows feel less like television than huge, immersive novels.

Despite the fact that someone on “The Deuce” is almost always having sex or at the very least nude, none of it is sexy, and it isn’t intended to be. The sex almost always is a means to an end — a sad, depressing means to an uncertain end. “The Deuce” certainly isn’t a series for the prudish, as it contains more male frontal nudity than any series I can recall. And it’s presented in such a sad, depressing way, it will make you wonder why women put up with men when they aren’t being paid.

Thankfully, the drama, co-created with “The Wire” writer and producer George Pelecanos, retains Simon’s penchant for creating moments of beautiful absurdity.

One night, Chris and his partner round up a van full of hookers who don’t have papers proving they’ve been arrested in the past 48 hours, take them to jail, then collect their orders for Chinese takeout. Many of the girls are so familiar with the routine they don’t even need to look at the menu. Then they’re let out of their cells long enough to eat under the stars with the police — just a bunch of working stiffs passing the time together.

If it isn’t obvious, I look forward to a new David Simon series the way some people look forward to football season.

Every time out, he brings worlds into your living room that are so lifelike, you feel as though you could walk around in them. Assuming, of course, that your carpet has been Scotchgarded.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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