In an early scene of The Deuce, premiering on HBO on Sunday night, smooth-talking C.C. (Gary Carr), freshly permed and curled and in a pin-striped suit, spots a fresh-faced white girl to spit that talk. He’s in a bus station in New York City in 1971, and pimping is still a viable living for a black man.
“Excuse me, baby, this your first time in New York?”
“Does it show?” the fresh-faced white girl says.
“A little, yeah, but everyone here came from somewhere else.”
“From Minnesota,” she says. “I need to find a place to stay.”
“You can’t be making those kinds of decisions until you get some food in your stomach. Let me buy you breakfast; I know a spot that serves it all day. It’s just breakfast, that’s all; you can keep me company. C.C. doesn’t like to eat alone.”
And just like that, she’s in the back of a gold Cadillac with a man she barely knows, inching closer to a life she never saw for herself.
And it dawns on us: David Simon and George Pelecanos, the creators of The Deuce, are pimps, too. They aren’t exploiting us, but they seduce us with imagery and language until we, too, are along for the ride.
The Deuce is an eight-episode look at the sex industry, and the corruption of the New York City Police Department, before the industry became a billion-dollar business. And much like The Wire before it, all of the players involved—from Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and his bushy muttonchop sideburns to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s gentle touch as prostitute Eileen “Candy” Merrell—are genuinely taking us into the once real and now imagined gritty piss stench of New York City’s Times Square, and the moment right before the business of selling sex became as natural as fucking.
The Root chatted with Simon, Pelecanos and actor Lawrence Gilliard Jr. to find out why authentic storytelling is so important, how the full frontal nudity in this story isn’t gratuitous and why fans of The Wire will love this show even if
D’Angelo Barksdale Gilliard is playing a cop.
The Root: How did it feel to work with David Simon again?
Lawrence Gilliard: It’s great. I’m totally spoiled working with these guys. After doing The Wire, I got a lot of offers to do a lot of stuff. Just working on a show like that, the writing is so amazing and the characters are so true, and you want that feeling all the time. It feels great to be back on HBO, and it feels great to be back working with this team, because they want to tell stories that, at the end of the day, they’re historical and educational. And through their stories, the team always strives to educate and teach.
TR: David, can you talk a little about the importance of language and how that plays into telling what feels like a really authentic portrayal of life back then?
David Simon: At a certain point, we’re making shit up because they [the characters] are fictional. And even though we went with a pair of twin brothers and a brother-in-law, we mangled up their stories; we combined it with other things we know of the industry, and other stories. And I think the thing that I would compare it to is, if you know the novels of E.L. Doctorow, where he’ll take a historical moment and he’ll weave the real into his fictional narrative, that’s kind of our trick.
Now, once you are in a historical place, you are trying to write dialogue that is consistent with whatever year you are in, and it’s tricky because the American language moves so fast. ... I grew up in a suburb right outside D.C. and was 11 years old in 1971, and I have no idea how close we are [to] approximating an Eighth Avenue pimp in that same year, but I know that we read as much as we could, and we’ve interviewed people and we watched every documentary we could get our hands on ... but you’re just doing the best you can.
George Pelecanos: David is a former reporter, so he’s obsessed with getting the details right, and I am, too, as a novelist. All of my books are set in D.C., and although my books are available for anybody, I write my books for Washingtonians. And both David and I live in fear of somebody saying this is bullshit. So we really work hard on it, and these scripts just don’t get written; they go through many iterations, line by line. Me and David are there on set changing dialogue on the spot. I would be embarrassed if something was inauthentic, but you are writing drama, so you have to serve the story, but it’s always about the characters.
TR: Is it possible to tell the story of the early days of pornography without the level of nudity, because there’s a lot of nudity. Was there pushback at all?
DS: No. Not from HBO and not from within the company. The important thing was how we did it, and that as subject to really ornate and detailed conversations within the production, because if you merely allude to what pornography or sex work is, you end up with Pretty Woman or some version thereof. ... By virtue of the fact that it merely alludes to the exploitation and misogyny that is inherent, you merely imply it, without actually making people viscerally feel what’s going on; now you’re cleaning it up. You’re also looking down on it and saying, “We’re too good to actually look at it for what it is.” At the same time, if the camera lingers, and if it enjoys the imagery, and if it’s using the imagery as fuel for the narrative, now you’ve done the opposite: You’re making porn to critique porn.
GP: Maybe this story could have been told with less nudity, and we cut a lot out; I mean, we would tell an editor to cut five seconds off that because we are lingering on a breast. We kept working on it because you can’t turn your gaze from it, either, because then it’s like people talking about pornography without seeing it.
The one thing we didn’t want to do is shoot porn, and it’s a futile exercise anyway. Why pay whatever an HBO subscription costs when you can watch it on your laptop for free? A little nudity went a long way; and there’s a lot of male frontal nudity in this, which is kind of unusual, and we never got a pushback from HBO, which I anticipated we might.
The Root (to Lawrence): We all know you as D’Angelo Barksdale on The Wire. How would you say your character, NYPD cop Chris Alston, on The Deuce and Barksdale are similar?
LG: They’re the same in the way that they’re caught up in institutions that are corrupt, although they’re on different sides of the law. D’Angelo was in the institution of the drug game. He was trying to be good and do good. And he couldn’t; he tried to get out. And in The Deuce, my character, he’s in the institution of the police department. And in that time in the ’70s, the NYPD was one of the most corrupt in the history of the department, and Alston is in the center of the corruption and trying to do good. They were both kind of dropped into these worlds, trying to be good, and attempting to navigate through all of the corruption and crime.
TR: With your “good cop” character, how do you see that being a prevalent piece of society now? Because people are always expecting more good cops to speak out, and we all know that the NYPD still has corruption going on.
LG: I talked to a lot of police officers as research, and when I asked what makes a person want to be a police officer, I was told that all cops, not some, want to do the job because they have an overwhelming desire to protect and serve. But what happens when you become a part of an institution, your ideals change.
You’re risking your life every day, your paycheck isn’t what you feel like it should be, the stress level affects you. Your ideas about what you thought this job would be change. You’re only human, and you can only do so much. I think it’s important, to know and to understand that there are good cops out there, and those who still believe in protecting and serving and wanting to do the right thing.
TR: Have you watched every episode of The Wire? Because one of your co-stars recently told me he didn’t.
LG: No, I did not watch all the seasons. I watched 1 and 2. If I’m not on a show, it’s hard for me to watch other cats working when I’m at home. If I’m on a football team and I lose the final game before the Super Bowl, I’m not watching the Super Bowl to see other people playing. I watched season 5 because my wife was on it. And I watched a good portion of season 4, with the kids in school, because I knew it was Ed Burns’ story, and I wanted to keep up on that. Once D died, I kinda fell off.
As with many Simon productions, you’ll see familiar faces from The Wire and have yet another eye-opening experience through the storytelling. Whether Simon is taking on the Baltimore drug scene or, now, how the NYPD had its hand in the prostitution rings of the infamous “Deuce,” he and his crew definitely know how to capture the essence of a story that’s not only historical but also entertaining.
The Deuce airs on HBO on Sundays at 9 p.m.