TORONTO – Even after years of making game-changing TV series like HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme,” creators David Simon and George Pelecanos knew that as two men overseeing a show about prostitution and pornography, they could be accused of exploitation.
So they pushed hard to diversify the staff behind “The Deuce,” which examines the commodification of sex in 1970s New York and stars James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Half of the eight episodes in season 1 are directed by women. The writers room is stacked with minority voices, including several other women, a black writer and a transgender man who worked with Simon in the past. In the production departments, they hired a woman to lead the teams any time it was possible, Simon said.
It was an intentional move to make “The Deuce” feel unlike anything else on television.
“Man, do not be screaming about the notion that affirmative action is in any way inappropriate as a remedy to the way in which we’ve structured our society,” Simon added during a recent interview in Toronto.
“George and I have had a good long run in a lucrative industry that is union based, it provides jobs with … benefits, let’s pull as many people through the keyhole, let’s be transformative, if we can.”
Hiring a diverse production staff on “The Deuce” also helped the creators head off any potential criticism over the portrayals of women, or suggestions that the stories were being told through a misogynistic lens.
“There’s a risk around the whole project,” Simon acknowledged.
“‘Oh, it’s a porn show.’ That sounds like a gratuitous gimmick. It sounded like that to us when we were approached with the material.”
The series revisits the grimy streets of Manhattan, particularly 42nd Street where the show gets its name. Based loosely on real people from the era, there’s an array of drug dealers, sex workers and upstart businessmen — all trying to make a living however they can.
Among the ensemble cast is Franco playing identical twins on different trajectories in life and Gyllenhaal as a prostitute who discovers the burgeoning porn industry.
Before Gyllenhaal signed on, she was skeptical about playing Candy, a woman whose ambition draws her off the streets. Talking to Simon on the phone, Gyllenhaal pressed for reassurances they were making this show for the right reasons before she took the part, according to Simon.
Canadian director Michelle MacLaren, who oversaw both the first and last episodes of the season, felt similar apprehensions. After handling episodes of “Westworld,” “Breaking Bad” and “The X Files” she didn’t want her name attached to a problematic project.
“I wanted to have a lot of conversations with David and George first to make sure we were all on the same page,” she said.
“That it wasn’t gratuitous or titallating in any way.”
“The Deuce” treads closer to Martin Scorsese films than “Pretty Woman,” turning its eye towards the loneliness and isolation of sex work. The creators encouraged the cast and crew to watch famous 1970s New York films like “Taxi Driver,” “Serpico” and “Mean Streets” to draw inspiration.
“It was dirty,” MacLaren says of the vibe she wanted to capture in the defining first episode.
“I always said I really want people to smell it. A lot of people have said they want to wash their hands afterwards.”
“The Deuce” airs Sundays on HBO Canada and was renewed for a second season earlier this week.
The creators say they’re already thinking about how to explore other perspectives of New York. They’ve hired a gay writer who lived in the West Village during the 1970s to help craft plotlines that will unravel on those streets in the next season.
Pelecanos said he’s also making no apologies for rallying around voices that often go unheard in the mainstream.
“If I have a white person and a minority — or a man and a woman — and all things are equal, they’re all equally qualified, I’m pretty much always going to hire the woman or the minority. It’s a dirty word, but it’s a form of reparations … you’re giving somebody a shot,” he said.
“I just feel like it’s the right thing to do.”
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