NEW YORK – You don’t have to look far to find a New Yorker who beefs about what 42nd Street has become.
That stretch between Eighth Avenue and Broadway just off Times Square: It’s now a frothy family friendly cauldron of theaters, eateries and other tourist draws that many natives denounce as “Disneyfied.”
By any description, it’s a stunning transformation from the urban slag of peep shows, gin mills and massage parlors known as “the Deuce” back in 1971 – the time and place in which a magnificent new HBO drama series, “The Deuce,” is immersed. (Its eight-episode season premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.)
For devotees of “The Wire” and “Treme,” nothing more need be said about “The Deuce” than it was co-created by David Simon and George Pelecanos, who can lay claim to those extraordinary dramas.
Pelecanos’ shorthand for his new series: “the rise and fall of Times Square.”
More specifically, this first season tracks the rise of the flesh trade from what was then called “smut” and what jokester Johnny Carson dubbed “strolling hostesses” to today’s billion-dollar industry whose wares are just a cellphone call away. From its first scenes, “The Deuce” gets under your skin.
As on “The Wire” (set in Baltimore) and “Treme” (New Orleans), this new series populates its chosen world with a rich spectrum of characters that range from pimps and prostitutes and drug dealers to mobsters and dirty cops and even a New York University dropout-turned-barmaid.
But among the series’ splendid ensemble, the greater among equals are Maggie Gyllenhaal as a defiantly entrepreneurial hooker who sees adult films as her ticket to success and James Franco, who tackles twin roles as identical twins: Vincent, an oddly high-minded bar owner who fronts for the mob, and Frankie, a rascally, trouble-courting cad.
The denizens of the Deuce trace intertwined narratives that unspool in matter-of-fact yet lyrical fashion, all set against an exactingly re-created Big Apple of nearly a half-century ago.
Perhaps no one is more knocked out by this production-design wizardry than Franco.
“You watch all the old (Martin) Scorsese and Sidney Lumet films that I love from that era, and all they had to do was put their cameras where they wanted and it was fine,” he says. “But not only did we have to set up all the shots, we also had to make up everything you see in the frame.”
On top of that were his dual roles, which include scenes where, with cinematic fluency, he interacts with himself in the same frame. It’s no small trick.
“I go in usually as Vincent first,” explains Franco in a soft, confiding tone as he leans in to his interviewer, “just because of the way the makeup and the hair worked, even though I would have rather done Frankie first, since he’s the more extroverted one. And then I’d do Frankie. And each time, the actor playing opposite me” – a place-holder in the two-shot – “would remember what I did with the other brother from when we rehearsed, so he could do it himself.”
All that, plus in two of the episodes, Franco is also directing himself.
“It’s a real case of compartmentalizing,” he says.
By phone, Pelecanos noted that on-screen twins played by a single actor are usually each given distinctive grooming or garb. Not here, apart from a helpful cut on Vincent’s forehead in the earlier episodes that help viewers get accustomed to telling the two characters apart.
“We kept them very similar in the way they look,” Pelecanos said. “What Franco did to differentiate the characters was all acting. Not just line delivery, but his posture, the way he walked – that was all him. What he did with the twins was really great.”
Vincent and Frankie are based on real-life twins, with the bar that “Vincent” actually ran in the early ’70s a well-known hangout for all types of people.
“Gays, straights, prostitutes, pimps, cops, porn actors –everybody was welcome,” Pelecanos said. “That was real attractive to us dramatically.”
Future seasons of “The Deuce” will follow the porn boom, the sexual revolution and, all too soon, the scourge of AIDS. By the mid-’80s, the ease and economy of video production would spell the end of back-room porn films. Then the porn industry moved out West. By the 1990s, on the eve of Time Square’s cloying renaissance, 42nd Street had been left to rot.
With that much story left to tell, Franco is itching to get a green light for Season 2.
“I remember walking around New York last summer when we were filming the first season and just thinking, This is the dream! The best writers in television. An incredible cast. And not only one great role, but TWO great roles.”
He flashes a smile.
“This is as good as it gets!”