Ten years after Mad Men kicked off a craze for the clean lines of the 1960s—skinny ties, martini glasses, midcentury modern skyscrapers—prestige TV is now delving into the aesthetically messier 1970s. HBO’s first foray into the decade, the music-industry drama Vinyl, was canceled last year after just one season. The cable channel takes a second, far more satisfying pass at the ’70s with its new series The Deuce, named after a particularly lurid stretch of 42nd Street where decrepit burlesque theaters had given way to adult bookstores and grind house cinemas.
It’s a testament to the distortive power of nostalgia that audiences would want to revisit the trash-strewn, crime-ridden Times Square of Midnight Cowboy and The French Connection. But looking back from today’s sanitized New York, The Deuce’s unflinching portrayal of the city’s blue period is comforting in the way gazing at a storm through a window can be.
The Deuce, which premieres September 10, is HBO’s fifth collaboration with cocreator David Simon, who seems to have carte blanche after his first series for the channel, The Wire, earned a posthumous reputation as the Citizen Kane of the small screen. Simon is interested in the Dickensian gear work of cities. As he did with Baltimore in The Wire and post-Katrina New Orleans in Treme, Simon presents ’70s New York as a set of codependent institutions. He returns here to some of his standbys: cops, organized crime, construction, journalism. But the stars of the show—the romantic leads, as it were—are prostitution and underground cinema. The first season sets up their love child, the modern pornography industry.
The series begins in the Port Authority bus terminal, at the far end of the Deuce, where two pimps who look like they stepped out of a Curtis Mayfield song scope out the new arrivals for small-town ingenues to recruit. Cultural clues lovingly sprinkled in the first few episodes—like Bertolucci’s The Conformist or Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”—let us deduce the year is 1970. Given the subject matter, the time period, and the fact that it’s airing on the channel that first equated prestige TV with gratuitous nudity, the show is necessarily exploitative. But its fetishism is mostly nonsexual. It applies to the kind of details that only someone who lived through that era—or researched it obsessively—could summon: the sound of spooling celluloid, misspelled marquees (e.g., “Rod Stieger”), phone numbers given without an area code, Parliament Lights as the gay cigarette of choice.
The faithful re-creation of New York’s bad old days makes it the most convincing of TV’s recent spate of ’70s period pieces, including Vinyl, Netflix’s canceled The Get Down, and the new Showtime series I’m Dying Up Here. But what keeps it from being more than an exercise in prurient nostalgia are its lead performances. James Franco displays remarkable range as a pair of mobbed-up identical twins with appropriately lush mustaches. And Maggie Gyllenhaal, a coproducer on the show, transcends the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché as a single mom who finds her calling—and a means to escape the streets—as a film director.
The Deuce won’t dispel the notion that part of New York’s authenticity was lost when Mayor Giuliani and Disney washed away the Times Square demimonde in the early ’90s, like the rain Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle predicted. But while it may be wistful about the chaotic sense of freedom—artistic and otherwise—that reigned there at the time, its gaze is frank enough that few viewers will pine for a return of the rampant crud, corruption, and sexual brutality that came with it.