The dirtiness and desperation of THE DEUCE: COMPLETE SEASON ONE is also a visual and auditory delight.
NOTE: Our images were captured from various sources.
By Matt Cummings
The idea of an ensemble drama – and the problems that come with it – are nothing new to the DNA of television. Managed properly, they can yield the most exquisite results; make the series too short, and those well-meaning characters get lost in plot machinations. Luckily THE DEUCE: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON never succumbs to either, elevating itself into one of the most mesmerizing recent series on television – albeit with a plot that’s anything but family friendly – with strong performances, great technical merits, and enough appealing supplements to maintain watchability long after the stink of 1970’s New York City has been washed away.
The New York City of 1971 is certainly not The Big Apple we know today: trash litters the streets, hookers and pimps are seemingly everywhere, and the drug culture celebrates intercourse with a smoke and a snort. Nestled somewhere within these realities lies the bartender Vincent (James Franco), the prostitute Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the NYU student Abby Parker (Margarita Levieva), and the pimp CC (Gary Carr). Each desires to ‘make it’, but each knows that their current path won’t yield the success they envision. All of that begins to change when Candy and her fellow street walkers learn about the lucrative porno film industry, while Vincent also sees dollar signs in running his own bar. But his biological twin Frankie (also played by Franco) causes Vincent no end of trouble, from being mistaken for his problematic brother to being forced to negotiate a deal with the local mob to repay his brother’s debt. As each character swims in and out of narrative, each will learn that life is especially cruel to the weak, and that money, ‘success,’ and happiness don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
DEUCE is a period piece unlike anything you might have seen. The story of prostitution and the porn industry isn’t exactly an easy sell, even for someone like HBO. There’s equally as many bare breasts as there are penises, and the amount of pubic hair is off the charts. But DEUCE is worth the trouble: from the moment we enter this world, co-creators David Simon and George Pelecanos have fleshed out the main characters so well that there’s an instant familiarity, based on smart, punchy dialogue and superb acting. Simon, who created the masterful THE WIRE, joins Gyllenhall and Franco as Executive Producer, crafting a disquieting experience without overdoing it. We don’t feel emotionally drained like we did watching OZARK, but we’re also acutely aware of each character’s predicament, as they tumble headlong like those in a Greek tragedy. Simon and Pelecanos have recreated this world with such flare and thoroughness that the only thing missing is the grainy porno film stock.
Performances are excellent, particularly from the troupe of hookers. Gyllenhall’s situation is one of the better parts of DEUCE, as is the up-and-coming story of Darlene (Dominique Fishback). Her exposure to the classic film A TALE OF TWO CITIES places her in a distinctly unique situation: will she attempt to improve herself, while her pimp Larry tries to take it from her? Will Lori (Emily Meade), who’s been hooking since her teens, give in to CC’s big talk of settling down, while gladly sending his herd onto the dark and dirty streets? Each side has a story to tell, and a team of talented directors (including the excellent Michelle MacLaren) weave an intricate story that doesn’t rely on super-hero violence, pithy comebacks, or a troupe of Mary Janes to sell its story. You’ll love the aesthetics but you’ll find yourself wrapped up in an old-fashion ensemble drama about the difficulties (and sometimes self-induced tragedies) of life.
HBO presents THE DEUCE: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON with an outstanding MPEG4-AVC transfer. As I mentioned previously, Simon and Pelecanos had a tough decision to make: should they shoot with authentic film stock – and thus ruin the cinematic experience – or make the series slightly less realistic by shooting with the Panasonic VariCam 35? In the end, I think they made the right choice going for the latter, as colors and textures here are fantastic and highly detailed. Perhaps the best thing about its look is how night shots are handled. A lot of THE DEUCE is shot on grimy evening streets, which could lead to a ton of blacks swallowing up skin tones and detail. Not here: everything is crisp and full of sepia tones in the bars, while daytime features a toned-down palette. We can see pores, fat rolls from a large hooker called Thunder Thighs, and paint chips on walls from the seedy local motel as goods are exchanged for services. Clothing and other production design elements look incredibly authentic, as do the imagined outdoor spaces of Times Square. There’s no aliasing, banding, or edge enhancement present, again something that could have easily crept into the print; but I’m happy to report that THE DEUCE shines as both an excellent period piece and as a technical marvel.
THE DEUCE: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON A BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS offers a very industrious DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, courtesy of HBO. If you love 70s Disco and ‘porn’ music (which of course you should!), you’ll like the pulsing soundtrack of the opening and closing credits. But you’ll also become aware of just how immersive this experience takes on. Dialogue is centered but not separated, but it is turned up enough to keep you from playing The Remote Game between quieter scenes. Left and right forward speakers move vehicle noise eloquently, seamlessly blending the track into a cacophony of big city activity. What elevates THE DEUCE is its rears (no not THOSE rears): everything from bar chatter to various city environs erupts early and often, never overwhelming you but at the same time but wrapping you in this world. There was a slight amount of overproduction in the LFE during the theme music, but it’s not enough to worry. HBO has hit gold with THE DEUCE, producing an immersive and inviting experience, even if the subject matter is not quite elegant or socially accepted.
THE DEUCE: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON offers several commentaries and a few EPK’s throughout the 3 50 GB discs. All features are offered in HD:
- Episode 1 Audio Commentary with Co-Creator David Simon, Executive Producer Nina Rostroff and Actor Maggie Gyllenhaal
- Inside the Episodes (5:26): This is a series of EPKs which discuss the three episodes.
- Inside the Episodes (5:15): Three EPK’s are offered.
- Episode 8 Audio Commentary with George Pelecanos, Director Michelle MacLaren and Actor James Franco
- Inside the Episodes (3:54): Two EPKs for each episode are offered.
- The Wild West: New York in the Early ’70’s (11:49): This is a much more satisfying featurette abot shooting a period piece, mixed in with old footage.
- The Deuce In Focus (8:13): Various elements of the series is discussed by the cast and two of the directors.
Our evaluation copy arrived as a Blu-ray/Ultraviolet HD copy with a great slipcase. The cover is embossed, and the poster itself looks authentic to the time. There is no interior artwork, and we were not aware of any special editions or alternate packaging.
THE BOTTOM LINE
THE DEUCE: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON is an engrossing period drama on a subject that will be difficult to appeal to the masses. But you should make the effort: it sports an excellent cast and a creative team with the pedigree to keep this story from becoming more than just a soft porn experience. Technical merits are impressive while the supplements help paint a vivid picture of the early 1970’s. Luckily, we’re going to get a season 2, and it’s my hope that by then the general audience will taken a dive into this seedy world without needing a shower afterwards. This one comes highly recommended.