For better or worse, pornography has been a normalized and lucrative industry for decades.

Now, HBO’s latest series The Deuce goes back to year zero of it all—1971—to explore the era when porn transformed from a behind-the-counter experience to a billion-dollar industry as American as racism and apple pie. 

The setting is New York City’s gritty Times Square, and creators David Simon and George Pelecanos know plenty about urban corruption from inventing both The Wire and Treme.

Starring Lawrence Gilliard Jr. (The Wire), Method Man and Black Thought opposite James Franco (who impressively plays twins), Maggie Gyllenhaal and other excellent players, The Deuce fleshes out the pimps, prostitutes, police and budding X-rated actresses of pre-Disneyfied 42nd Street.

Depending where you fall on the sliding scale of respectability politics, The Deuce is either another stellar prestige series from HBO accurately reflecting an explicit, often sexually violent world or a potentially exploitative show depicting African-Americans in a negative light. Heartrending storylines centering on lack of agency in the lives of The Deuce’s streetwalkers know no color lines. But with Donald Glover and Sterling K. Brown winning Emmys for groundbreaking work on Atlanta and This Is Us, aren’t Black call girls and pimps arguably a step backwards?

“There have been times when I received scripts like: I’m not doing that, you’ve got to be kidding me,” says Gary Carr, who portrays a central pimp named C. C. on The Deuce. “And there are other times I received scripts like: I need to do this. It’s not about these people’s professions. It’s like, people first. And I think there’s a lot of beauty to be had when you have the responsibility of playing characters like that. I don’t see him as just a pimp. And the truth is, pimps existed! And these stories are relevant.”

“I think about that too,” Maggie Gyllenhaal chimes in, sitting adjacent Carr in an HBO conference room in Manhattan. “Pimps existed, streetwalkers existed. Are these stories we’re not allowed to tell? We have to shove this under a rock?”

Based on a true story, The Deuce delves into the lives of twin brothers (played by James Franco) who fronted businesses in Times Square for the Mob (massage parlors, bars), at a time when laws were relaxed to allow the sex trade to flourish. Storytelling from screenwriter Richard Price, author of Clockers (brought to Hollywood in 1995 by Spike Lee), girds several of the eight episodes. Many actors from The Wire—often praised as the best TV series ever—resurface in The Deuce; Clarke Peters, Chris Bauer, Michael Kostroff, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Method Man and Lawrence Gilliard Jr. 

Shady operations on 42nd Street are threatened to be exposed by investigative reporter Sandra Washington and her beat cop source, Gilliard Jr.’s officer Chris Alston.

“He’s a guy in the system trying to do good,” Gilliard explains. “He wanted to be a cop because he wanted to help people, he wanted to protect and serve. He’s in a corrupt police department, and he’s working probably one of the grimiest areas in Times Square. He sees these girls and these pimps and he feels for them.”

Envisioned by its creators as a three-season arc, The Deuce season two fast-forwards to the late 1970s heyday of adult films, hustlers and hookers in the area. Season three concludes The Deuce in the ’80s, when it all falls down during the dawn of AIDS.

Affecting everything from advertising to everyday sexual habits, the porn industry can provide titillating, insightful revelations into the mores of modern-day America. HBO’s latest, greatest series lays it all bare in style.

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