As nostalgic as I am for the '70s and ‘80s Times Square, I’m glad that George Pelecanos and David Simon’s new show The Deuce wastes no time getting the first mugging out of the way. Vinnie Martino is dropping the bar receipts in the night deposit box when two goons in a Barracuda shake him down and make him pay for not having the money. We know immediately that we have landed in Old New York, home of The Seven-Ups, The French Connection, The Exterminator, Night of the Juggler, and Serpico. There’s no hint of nostalgia or otherworldliness like in American Hustle, we are there.
Modern Times Square is a tourist-clogged nightmare where you’re more likely to be accosted by an aggressive busker in a counterfeit Elmo costume than a PCP-addled thug wearing a long leather coat—but it’s also about as interesting as counting pimples at a middle school dance. You start wondering why the hell you went there in the first place.
Which is a lot different than the old Times Square, faithfully rendered in this premiere episode of The Deuce; you went there to get drugs or get laid or both. The only time I went into a peep show joint was to photograph author Christa Faust, a former peep show girl herself, for an article on her Peepland comic miniseries, written with Gary Philips. I’d been to the deuce a few times, too young to drink and smart enough not to fall for the guys luring us down alleys for sex with “the most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen!” Yes, I’m sure you call the Saturday night special in your sock or your billy club “Annie,” and she’s a so beautiful I’m gonna see stars. It’s exactly how I remember it.
I was lucky, my uncle Paul ran bars for the Jewish mob in Manhattan and Brooklyn and warned me about three-card Monte and street scams. Now that he’s retired, you can find him some nights in bars not far from Times Square—like Rudy’s or the Ritz—walking distance from the Port Authority Bus Station, aka The Minnesota Strip, which features in scene two of the premiere. The PABT still has the ugly old tiles that make you wonder if they asked Pantone for Vomit and Bile.
It's there we meet two pimps looking for fresh meat off the buses from the Midwest. C.C. is young, scrappy, and hungry (Gary Carr, Downton Abbey) and homes in on Lori (Gimme Shelter, Boardwalk Empire) like a shark on blood. The story gives us our first sucker punch with Lori, who is much more than she seems. I won’t ruin it for you, but in C.C.’s custom Cadillac with a rack of designer threads in the back, we see she’s a lot more than the Minnesota naïf she pretends to be.
Crime fiction superstars Megan Abbott and Lisa Lutz are writing, and they take a straight razor to any pretense. As a fan of theirs and also Simon and Pelecanos, I watched for familiar characters. It certainly has the complexity of The Wire, the street grit of Pelecanos’s fiction, the cold noir heart of Abbott, and the intense family intrigue of Lutz, with a story that’s new but could only spring from its setting.
We meet NYU student Abby, who’s fooling around with her professor. She offers to buy uppers for her dorm mates the night before a big exam. How she meets up with Vinnie, I’ll let you learn, but I foresee the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Eileen, aka Candy, is the wise streetwalker who operates without a pimp and gives Lori some tips. Lori seems a little too knowledgeable and makes friends quick by being generous with a pack of smokes—giving us a taste that there’s a lot more to her than we get to see. Eileen gets her due as both an entrepreneur and a single mother in a scene with a John in an hourly room. He’s a suburban white boy out for his birthday present. Her speech to him is perfect, and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s solemn face is as expressive as Maria Falconetti’s in The Passion of Joan of Arc. There’s also a hilarious nod to Hitchcock in this scene if you catch it.
Officers Olson and Flanagan cover the police side of the equation. The mob gets some coverage, as it must in this era, but they are background. The frontline characters are their products and victims, degenerate gamblers like Vinnie’s twin brother Frankie, also played by James Franco, who pulls off both quite well.
The best compliment I can give is that he reminds me of people I knew growing up in Italian-American neighborhoods in the ‘70s, and the low-level crew ring true without mimicking icons from Scorsese films. These are dirty street soldiers you might recognize from Black Caesar and Across 110th Street, the guys they’d get Anthony Franciosa to play.
Vinnie is tired of covering for his brother and seeing his wife cheat on him—though he has no problem cheating on her—and his second job at the Korean place on the Deuce is dead. So he takes some initiative, gets the waitresses to doll up in black and white, and gives out tickets for free drinks. This was when there were no meters on the bottles, cops drank free, and you got buy backs if you left bills on the mahogany. Didn’t matter because the booze was cheap—with distributors giving you cases for kickbacks, there was more money than you could steal … and Vinnie can taste it. He’s inadvertently setting the stage for something big. The players are all in their places. And we don’t want to miss it.
Thomas Pluck has slung hash, worked on the docks, trained in martial arts in Japan, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture. He is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, his first Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller, and Blade of Dishonor, an action adventure which BookPeople called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks.”
Joyce Carol Oates calls him “a lovely kitty man.”