Come Again

DAVID SI­MON, GE­ORGE PELECANOS AND RICHARD PRICE DIG INTO PORN WITH THEIR NEW SE­RIES, THE DEUCE

Newsweek International - - WEEKEND - BY STU­ART MILLER

DAVID SI­MON, the cre­ator of The Wire and Treme, may now be the TV lau­re­ate of urban dys­func­tion, but he grew up in a com­fort­able Wash­ing­ton, D.C., sub­urb, where the most risqué thing he did as an ado­les­cent was “try­ing to steal my dad’s Play­boy mag­a­zine.”

The sum­mer af­ter high school, he went to work at an un­cle’s elec­tron­ics ware­house in New York. It was 1978, and “the city was glo­ri­ously out of con­trol and sin­is­ter,” says Si­mon. “Al­ways a lit­tle faster than I was.” He remembers go­ing to the East Vil­lage, to Tomp­kins Square Park, to buy weed, “and you’d get oregano, but you’d say, ‘I’m still alive, so I’ll just smoke oregano.’ For some­body brought up in the sub­urb with hedges, I re­al­ized the world ba­si­cally doesn’t obey any rules be­yond the hedge.”

And then there was Times Square, eas­ily “the most dan­ger­ous place I’d ever gone. To be 17 and walk into some­place with fake ID, and they’re ac­tu­ally hav­ing sex on­stage—like, What the…?”

Times Square at that time was New York at its seed­i­est—a city within the city that Si­mon has re-cre­ated with long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor Ge­orge Pelecanos for their new HBO se­ries, The Deuce. The show fo­cuses on the le­gal­iza­tion and rise of the porn in­dus­try, via twins Vin­cent and Frankie Martino (both played by James

Franco and based on real brothers)—an ir­res­o­lute gam­bler and an am­bi­tious bar owner who fall in with mob. It’s clas­sic Scors­ese territory, with a bu et of lowlifes and an­ti­heroes: pros­ti­tutes (one played by Mag­gie Gyl­len­haal), pimps, drug deal­ers and gang­sters. But in The Deuce, sex and speed­balls take a back­seat to the dark side of cap­i­tal­ism, misog­yny and po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion.

Si­mon and Pelecanos are sit­ting in Si­mon’s Bal­ti­more o ce, where the show was writ­ten, along with ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Richard Price, an­other nov­el­ist adept at turn­ing crim­i­nal acts into vis­ceral en­ter­tain­ment (Clock­ers, Lush Life and HBO’S The Night Of). “Richard is the bal­last in the room,” says Si­mon. “When­ever we’re lost in a scene about the na­ture of pornog­ra­phy and what we want to say about it po­lit­i­cally, some­one has to bring us back. ‘You’re mak­ing a speech,’ Richard will say. ‘I know what you’re try­ing to do, but I’m down here with the hu­man be­ings.’”

Price laughs. He fre­quently teases Si­mon, a for­mer re­porter for The Bal­ti­more Sun, over his ded­i­ca­tion to the facts, re­mind­ing him, “You. Can. Make. Shit. Up. David still thinks if he writes ction, he’s red.”

Si­mon wasn’t par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in cre­at­ing a show about the sex in­dus­try. “Since the ad­vent of pre­mium ca­ble, there have prob­a­bly been 147 porn pi­lots pitched, and on hear­ing about them, my ini­tial re­sponse was to sneer,” he says. What at­tracted all three to the Marti­nos was their world and what it could say about 2017—even if the crass­est thing about Times Square to­day (apart from the Naked Cow­boy) is the com­mer­cial­iza­tion. “This is a his­tor­i­cal story,” Price says, “but the point is how it metas­ta­sizes out and talks to you about to­day.”

What changed be­cause of the ’70s and what re­mains the same, says Si­mon, is “how we ac­quire sex and com­mod­ify women. Pornog­ra­phy and misog­yny have be­come ever more prof­itable and ex­tend deeper into the cul­ture. We don’t sell a bot­tle of beer with­out at least us­ing the ver­nac­u­lar of mod­ern pornog­ra­phy. Long af­ter the phys­i­cal plant that was Times Square ceased to be what it was, it had per­me­ated the cul­ture, and it was ev­ery­where. So, yeah, the mid­dle of mid­town got xed. The Amer­i­can soul, not so much.”

Gra­tu­itous thrills are not the point of The Deuce, in other words, and Price ac­knowl­edges that writ­ing about a pruri­ent topic with­out be­ing pruri­ent is a del­i­cate bal­ance. “You do that by mak­ing these char­ac­ters as nu­anced as pos­si­ble,”

“WE DON’T SELL A BOT­TLE OF BEER WITH­OUT AT LEAST US­ING THE VER­NAC­U­LAR OF MOD­ERN PORNOG­RA­PHY.”

he says. And by not turn­ing the show into a “raunchy com­edy,” says Si­mon, who point­edly in­vited young, fe­male nov­el­ists Me­gan Ab­bott and Lisa Lutz into the writ­ers’ room.

It’s an­other tricky bal­ance writ­ing about, say, pimps—men who vir­tu­ally en­slaved women, but who can have the sort of charisma that pops on TV. “The show can’t have sneer­ing con­dem­na­tion from on high or just be con­trary, say­ing, ‘I’m go­ing to em­brace the an­ti­hero no mat­ter how much dam­age he’s do­ing to other hu­man be­ings,’” says Si­mon. “We’ve got to stay on the fence in be­tween. That’s our re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

THE ’ S is a ripe era for ca­ble, even if the results fre­quently rot on the vine—most re­cently, HBO’S Vinyl and Net ix’s The Get Down. But you can un­der­stand the al­lure: the hair, the clothes and the music are vis­ual and au­ral cat­nip. For Si­mon, that was also a po­ten­tial trap. “If it be­comes ‘Oh, it’s a tour through the ’70s,’ then that’s wrong.”

Pelecanos is the one who grinds on the de­tails, like catch­ing a mis­take on the poster for Ser­gio Leone’s A Fist­ful of Dy­na­mite, orig­i­nally re­leased as Duck, You Sucker; he’s dis­mayed by one er­ror that made it to air: A bookie refers to Tug Mc­graw as the start­ing pitcher for the Mets (he was a re­liever). “There’s noth­ing fun­nier than watch­ing Ge­orge walk down the street and pick out the 1973 cars that shouldn’t be in a 1971 shot,” says Si­mon. “‘What is this opera win­dow do­ing on this El Do­rado? I don’t know why I come to work!’”

“You want to be ac­cu­rate about that stu . You’re leav­ing a record,” says Pelecanos. Like Si­mon, he grew up in Wash­ing­ton, and his grand­fa­ther owned a diner near that city’s equiv­a­lent of Times Square. His sex­ual awak­en­ing ex­tended well

be­yond the pages of Play­boy. “The rite of pas­sage then was when a friend turned 16, you drive him down to 14th Street and buy him a pros­ti­tute. We did that, fre­quently.”

Of the three, only Price grew up in New York. He lived in the Bronx but would visit Man­hat­tan reg­u­larly and fan­ta­sized about some­day liv­ing “in a pent­house in Times Square, right in the mid­dle of ev­ery­thing.” In the ’70s, in his early 20s, at an age when “you don’t have a brain, you have an or­gan,” he be­came ac­quainted with iconic spots like the hard­core porn palace Show World. “I’m the voice of ex­pe­ri­ence in that re­spect,” he says. “If only I could get all those peep show quar­ters back from HBO for re­search.”

That younger ver­sion of Price was “clue­less” about what was re­ally go­ing on in Times Square. “It’s like stand­ing on a beach try­ing to un­der­stand the ocean by its sur­face,” he says. Writ­ing the show, on the other hand, is “like putting on a scuba mask.

We’re go­ing down to the tec­tonic plates, the eco­nom­ics, the in­ter­ac­tions. You think of the sex­ual stu as a busi­ness. So look­ing at a peep show, where does that quar­ter go if you fol­low that quar­ter? There’s a girl there, and you’re kind of in­tim­i­dated and turned on. But who is this girl, where is she go­ing, what is she go­ing home to?”

The slo­gan for The Deuce, jokes Price, could be a twist on the in­fa­mous di­rec­tive from Deep Throat (the FBI source in All the Pres­i­dent’s Men, not the porn movie). In­stead of “fol­low the money,” says Price, “it could be ‘fol­low the sticky quar­ter.’”

The Deuce be­gins Septem­ber 10 on HBO.

“IF ONLY I COULD GET ALL THOSE PEEP SHOW QUAR­TERS BACK FROM HBO FOR RE­SEARCH.”

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DO THE HUS­TLE: Gyl­len­haal stars as an en­tre­pre­neur­ial hooker in ’70s Time Square.

DAVID SI­MON

GE­ORGE PELA­CANOS

RICHARD PRICE

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DOU­BLE TROU­BLE: Franco plays twin brothers Frankie and Vin­cent Martino.

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