Imagining the dawn of pornography as a business, what comes to mind is cheap movies with terrible plots and the poor women who were forced to make them.
The introduction on The Deuce Season 1 Episode 1 to characters who will later take us on the journey beyond street walking to those seedy movies doesn't immediately connect prostitution and our ideas of the women who made them.
This is fiction. But the characters (and the city!) are pulled out of history. The Deuce offers an inside look at how and why what was once a tight-lipped and brown-bagged industry flourished into a multi-billion dollar business. The skin trade.
James Franco plays twin brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino. Vince is the reliable brother, married with two children, working two jobs and full of ambition. He desires to make it to the top on the skin of his own back, unlike his brother, who hopes to get there by wagering money he doesn't have.
Vince isn't perfect. He's a better businessman than a husband. He'll be at work the morning after a mugging despite a raw head injury, but when his wife, childhood sweetheart Andrea, gets tired of sitting home waiting for him while he works two jobs, Vince will drag it out further by sexing up his coworker instead of going home.
That's not the way to save a marriage, but Vince isn't as interested in saving his marriage as he makes it seem to Andrea. His ambition is far greater than his need for a stable home life, and when the made man comes calling for money Frankie owes, Vince's promise to deliver only increases the pressure to succeed.
Both Vincent and Frankie sport the same '70s mustaches, but even while looking remarkably similar, there is little doubt which brother is on screen at any given time. Franco slips in and out of each brother with ease. Frankie is cocky and confident, while Vince is more reserved and building his confidence without the swagger.
It's not hard to imagine a home in which two Francos grew up, and knowing there was a house of Francos lends credence to his portrayal. He's had practice.
Maggie Gyllenhaal also plays two versions of herself. One is Candy, the streetwise street walker, and the other is her alter ego, Eileen Merrell.
As prostitute Candy, Gyllenhaal takes care of her own business. She has no interest in a man's influence whether he'd provide protection, use her as a possession or take a percentage of her earnings. She takes a risk every time she's on the street, and the pimps are a constant threat as they compete to make her theirs.
As Eileen, she's a single mother providing for her son the best she can. She's pragmatic, seeing her job as any other. When a 16-year-old boy doesn't find it fair his good time didn't last longer than the time she took to dress him with a condom, she compared her job to his father's selling cars.
Eileen's mom may not approve of what she's doing, but she also doesn't have an alternative that will keep Eileen living in a nice high-rise apartment and delivering an envelope of cash to care for her son every month. They seem to have an understanding, difficult though it may be.
Eileen is friends with all the girls and a star with the men. She has regulars who leave her messages asking for dates. It's not all about walking the streets.
In this "dual" role, Gyllenhaal never allows the character to be either sleazy nor pathetic. Throughout the premiere, there is a feeling Eileen knows what she's doing as Candy, and while she has other skills she could be using for a secretarial position, for example, walking the streets is her choice. Nobody is forcing her to do anything.
This perspective is important, especially in light of all the other "hos" we get to know who are under the influence of pimps and possibly not sure they have other opportunities available.
Our introduction to the pimps was one of my favorite scenes from the premiere. It could be easy to slough them off as stupid and without much to offer society, but their discussion about politics proved otherwise. Well, at least one side of the conversation.
Rodney: Man, every move that man makes, he already got it mapped out. No, he ain't bein' crazy. He ain't being crazy at all. He's actin' like a mother fuckin' fox.
CC: You think?
Rodney: Nixon? I see right where the mother fuckin' man comin' from. Shit makes perfect sense to me.
CC: How do you figure?
Rodney: He president. So we got to front some being the man, right? So on the one hand, he got his people over there in Paris talkin' peace. That's the carrot. Now the stick? He got to make those slopes thinkin' he's crazy to do all kinda shit. Bomb the shit outta Vietnam, take over Cambodia, whatever the fuck.
CC: So you think he fronting?
Rodney: That man wants out of war just like everybody else, but he can't think like that. So he gotta make those mother fuckers think he'll do any goddamned thing they can imagine. Shit. If I was him, I'd be flashing nuclear weapons and shit.
CC: For real?
Rodney: I'm not sayin' I would use that shit, I'm saying I'd be like, do not fuck with President Reggie Love because that nigger's crazy and he will drop that big mother fucker on you.
CC: Right on.
Rodney: I mean it's like this here. I mean, CC, you ever really want to cut a bitch? Sometimes you might want a bitch to think you might, but shit.
They moved so quickly into "ride that bitch like Man o' War" that it made me laugh out loud, but what else would we expect from pimps?
Mark Carr and Method Man are just two of the actors playing pimps on The Deuce, and all of the actors stand out in their roles. Like Franco and Gyllenhaal, they're also tasked with playing two different roles. The two sides of a pimp can be drastically different.
CC was the leading that parade in the premiere as he not only captured Lori's attention at the bus depot, getting the veteran streetwalker under his wing before any other snatched her for theirs but walking the tightrope with his own vet, Ashley, who worried Lori might usurp her position with him.
When she hoped to use her wiles to get out of a night in the pouring rain, she learned what it really meant to be working under CC, and it wasn't pretty.
While some of the pimps seemed like they might be the teddy bear under the hip street garb, CC proved their role was to make money and taking a chance on something else was putting your life on the line.
Still, getting to know Darlene who has a penchant for watching movies with her clients, and discovering more about Lori and why she fell so easily under CC's wing when she has been around the block before offers all kinds of potential.
Every character was introduced in excruciating detail so that by the time the premiere ended, it felt like we had already spent a lot of time pounding the pavement in 1971 New York City.
Abby, Ruby, Larry, Leon and Officer Alston will all get more screen time and more time in my reviews going forward. The Deuce gets under your skin. You'll be thinking about it. You'll want to rewatch it. By the time you're more acquainted with the story, you'll bemoan the fact there are only eight episodes to The Deuce Season 1
For now, I want to know what you think. Is The Deuce what you expected? Are you eager for more?
Share your thoughts in the comments below, and let's start talking!
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.