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At the crossroads, HBO’s ‘The Deuce’ returns for a final season


Domenick Lombardozzi, as Jack Maple in "The Deuce." (Paul Schiraldi// HBO)

The first moments of 1985 were hopeful and warm in HBO’s season premiere of “The Deuce,” but things are not always what they seem.

"To all the great things coming down the pike,” James Franco’s club owner Vincent Martino says, clinking glasses with Eileen Merrell, a streetwalker turned adult film director played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.

The show delves into the sordid stew of the old Times Square, jumping in its third and final season from 1978 to 1985 on Sunday. It continues stirring up dark tales of capitalism and misogyny run rampant in the stories of pimps and prostitutes, mobsters and pornographers, and now developers, real estate speculators and Wall Street brokers.

James Franco (left) and Daniel Sauli are seen in a Season 3 of "The Deuce."
James Franco (left) and Daniel Sauli are seen in a Season 3 of "The Deuce." (Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

Life for Times Square’s denizens remains unforgiving and often bleak. “When people are nostalgic for the old Times Square, I ask, ‘Did you live there?’” said George Pelecanos, who created the series with David Simon. He didn’t come to New York until the 1990s when he first started publishing detective novels, which he believes helped him bring a clear-eyed subjectivity to the writers’ room.

Looming over the new season is not just the eventual neighborhood overhaul but the knowledge that the AIDS crisis, the crack epidemic and a surge in murders are all coming and coming hard.

“A lot of characters don’t make it to the end of Season 3,” Pelecanos said. While it’s always difficult for him or Simon to break the news of a character’s demise to an actor, he thinks tragedy does offer up “terrific dramatic material.”

Emily Meade in "The Deuce"
Emily Meade in "The Deuce" (Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

And he offers a sliver of daylight too, “You will see moments of triumph.”

One success story comes from a new secondary character, an outlandish transit city cop with radical ideas. Jack Maple was real, and he achieved fame for creating Compstat, which brought a sophisticated use of data to policing under NYPD Police Commissioner William Bratton.

To play this over-the-top character, Pelecanos and Simon reached back to “The Wire,” for Domenick Lombardozzi, who played Herc, an inept and old-school headbanger cop with a slippery moral compass. “Playing Jack Maple is a bit of redemption,” said Lombardozzi, a Bronx native who knew of Compstat but had never heard of Maple.

“He was a maverick, who was looked down upon because he was transit police, but who really helped clean the city up,” Lombardozzi explained. The show’s police technical advisor Robert Nardi knew Maple and his “truckload of knowledge” was essential to making sure Maple’s mannerisms, eccentricities and ideas were accurately represented, down to his quirky outfits. “I just wish I could have kept the hot pink Converse sneakers,” Lombardozzi said.

Lombardozzi knows Maple is “just a little piece of a big puzzle” this season. This show’s broad canvas even leaves the city, following Lori, a prostitute turned porn star, played by Emily Meade, who migrates with the business to the San Fernando Valley.

Zoe Kazan in first episode of Season 3.
Zoe Kazan in first episode of Season 3. (Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

“She’s representative of that huge part of this story,”said Meade, who read about the era but also discussed it with Pelecanos and Simon. “Sometimes one tiny piece of information can unlock the world,” she added, pointing to details about the rise of plastic surgery at the time and the increase of fetishes in porn.

“There was a need to push further and it became way more degrading,” she said. “There’s a common pattern where the women think they were empowered but that was just impossible to maintain.”

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Corey Stoll appear in "The Deuce."
Maggie Gyllenhaal and Corey Stoll appear in "The Deuce." (Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

“The Deuce” blends historical reality with dramatic storytelling. Simon brings a journalist’s approach and Pelecanos has a novelist’s eye for physical details. “I especially drive the car guy crazy,” he says. “A lot of showrunners don’t pay attention to this but before every scene I’d pull cars out that weren’t exactly right.”

For all the emphasis on nuance and realism, the creators always kept the big picture in mind. “We knew the ending of the series before we even started,” Pelecanos said.