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HBO's 'The Deuce' isn't what TV wants, but it's what it needs

"The commodification of flesh and sexual imagery" is what David Simon's co-creator George Pelecanos said  "The Deuce" is about. Sex exploitation went "from being in a brown paper bag and under the counter to universal in American life."

I don't know about "universal" but I take his point. The period in which "The Deuce" takes place is 1971, just before the advent of "Deep Throat" in movie theaters. The setting is Manhattan's Times Square, which writer Seth Grahame-Smith lip-smackingly called "a little slice of Sodom of Gomorrah between sixth and ninth avenues (east to west) and 39th and 52nd streets (north to south.)"

It's where the hookers were, the massage parlors and porn theaters. It's where the action will center for the next eight weeks in Simon and Pelecanos' HBO Sunday series.

David Simon is most famous for creating HBO's "The Wire," among the most honored series in television history. Pelecanos also has been with Simon for his New Orleans series "Treme."

Telling younger people today about Times Square in the sleazy '70s - and the '70s in general - is a bit like telling them about Baghdad during "The Arabian Nights" or the medieval Paris of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." It's that distant. No matter how many of us are alive and flourishing and able to remember it, it all seems just that foreign in the current post-feminist world we live in where women can run for president, cable news pashas can be deposed after too many harassment accusations and locker room sexual braggadocio by male pols can be a galvanizing issue all over America.

That we now live in a cultural world where Bill Cosby, master of pudding and comedy, can become one of the most despised pariahs in all of entertainment would have seemed utterly unreal in 1971, when movies were just about to give us "Deep Throat" and "The Devil In Miss Jones."

Fully operational at the time were, in Pelecanos' words, not only "women as commodity" but the delusion that society would benefit from bringing the ancient sex trade "inside where it was more discreet."

James Franco plays two roles in "The Deuce." Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a hooker who, eventually, gets behind the camera in the porn business.

Gyllenhaal has been in some of the edgier films of the past 15 years, most notably "Secretary" with James Spader. You had to see her talking about "The Deuce" on Stephen Colbert's show early last week to understand how uncomfortable she now seems talking about her career amid the new gender understandings of the 21st century. But what she said was credible and creditable.

"The Deuce" is a premium cable series that TV actually needed. For all its huge popularity, I'm not sure America needed "Game of Thrones" all that desperately. That very absence of cultural need is probably what made "GOT" so popular. It was the old flesh and violence world of Cecil B. DeMille with dragons and CGI added.

"The Deuce" is something else altogether. It's an attempt to make sure that the subjects of money and power remain paramount in tales of the sex trade that, once upon a time in America, seemed so "universal" and so "innocent."

And then Linda Lovelace, the star of "Deep Throat" told the world at large that her performance in "Deep Throat," quite literally, was accomplished while her live-in exploiter Chuck Traynor was wont, on occasion, to hold a gun to her head.

In "The Deuce," a sordid world gets what's coming to it courtesy of truth-tellers Simon and Pelecanos--a dark look at the money and power and manipulation running it.

Unlike "Game of Thrones," it may not be TV that America wants in giant numbers but I'd stoutly maintain that in the 21st century, it's TV American needs to understand how we got where we are in 2017.

But then Sunday night television has become replete with constant displays of television America truly needs. This weekend, for instance, Charlie Rose will be featured on "60 Minutes" in an interview with Stephen Bannon, the former White House strategist who is back outside of Pennsylvania Avenue's premiere residence. He's now looking into it as the honcho of what many see as the dark, Satanic mills of Breitbart (says one character in "The Deuce": Comes the dark hour, you are alone.")

For me, it's "must-see TV" to quote the promo slogan.


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