George Pelecanos, David Simon and Richard Price bring their urban soul to "The Deuce," a new HBO extravaganza that begins Sunday night, giving hope of curing "Game of Thrones" withdrawal.
"The Deuce," starring James Franco - playing twins! - and Maggie Gyllenhall as the good-hearted prostitute, looks back on the wild days of Times Square in the early 1970s, when New York City seemed near death and Times Square and 42nd Street careened with prostitution, porn, peep shows and drugs. Then came the Giuliani crackdown, the city's economic revival, Disneyfication and surging tourism.
With gentrification and a blander corporate New York, nostalgia has bloomed for New York's dangerous early '70s as a time of excitement, artistic ferment and cultural and social experimentation. Even the disco boom looks thrilling.
Simon scored a major HBO hit with "The Wire," a searching look at Baltimore's decline through its inner-city neighborhoods, police, schools, ports, politics and newspaper. Pelecanos, known for his gritty crime novels based in Washington, D.C., made a major contribution to the show, with exposed the violence and corruption of the city's black-white power dynamics. The two returned with "Treme," a similar look at post-Katrina New Orleans, which critics found less vibrant than "The Wire."
Price, acclaimed for his screenwriting, realistic crime novels and dynamic dialogue, lent authenticity to both shows. With Simon connected to his Baltimore background, and Pelecanos an expert on Washington, Price will bring expert New York knowledge to "The Deuce."
A Wall Street Journal review Thursday gave "The Deuce's" first episode good marks. The WSJ praised Gyllenhall's performance, with less enthusiasm for Franco. The WSJ featured Pelecanos as the leading force in "The Deuce," with Simon in more of a secondary role. Price participated in script writing.
The piece reported that several women directors, including "Breaking Bad" alum Michelle MacLauren, worked on the show. The writing staff, heavy with crime novelists, had intense arguments over the scripts, the Journal reported. Saluting the grandfather of urban noir, a Dickens theme is a key element, the WSJ said. Showing his "auteur" flamboyance, Franco also directed an episode.
HBO fans will hope that "The Deuce" is better than "Vinyl," the failed saga of the rock music industry set in the same New York era. "Vinyl" arrived on HBO several years ago with heavy fanfare, but was canceled after one season.
The "Deuce" sounds worth a look, although that's a heavy dose of Franco. Another danger sign is a prevalence of "Superfly" pimp characters wearing big hats and flashy jewelry. Pelecanos, Simon and Price in the past have found a good balance between cliche and urban realism. A period piece like "The Deuce" needs such restraint.
Like Franco, Gyllenhaal can go too far with the acting class techniques. If Pelecanos and Simon kept them under control, "The Deuce" could be a worthy addition to HBO's tradition, which previously looked at New York culture with "The Sopranos," "Girls," "Boardwalk Empire," and "Sex and the City."
If "The Deuce" fizzles, NFL Sunday night football begins the next week. For those who despise the NFL, PBS will offer Ken Burns' "Vietnam." Little nostalgia value there, however.