The Soul of HBO's Sex-Fueled New Series 'The Deuce'

Paul Schiraldi
Tarik Trotter and Gary Carr in HBO's The Deuce.

There’s a scene in the first episode of HBO's new series The Deuce where a pimp C. C. (Gary Carr) is giving a fresh New York City transplant Lori (Emily Meade) a sales pitch. They’re in a diner, it’s broad daylight, and surrounded by other pimps and prostitutes. Some are doing cocaine out in the open, while others are talking about their upcoming job prospects. It’s like a Meetup group for the New York underbelly, with eggs over easy, plenty of coffee, and an endless stream of cigarettes.

And quietly soundtracking the entire scene is Johnnie Taylor’s “Standing in for Jody,” a Billboard chart-topping Stax/Volt artist. It’s a soulful ballad that you might never associate with the world of pimps and prostitute -- but for The Deuce, it makes perfect sense.

“This was an opportunity to call back a lot of the music we loved when we were growing up,” says series co-creator George Pelecanos.  “But it always had to fit the characters.”

The Deuce is the third major TV series that Pelecanos has worked on with David Simon -- their previous efforts were the critically acclaimed series The Wire and Treme, the latter of which explored the New Orleans music scene after Hurricane Katrina. The Deuce (slang for 42nd Street in New York) stars James Franco as twins Vincent and Frankie Martino and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Candy, a veteran prostitute trying to make ends meet and support her young son, who lives with her mother. Broadly, the show depicts the rise of the sex industry in New York City, starting in 1971 and how that paved the way for the porn industry years later.

But don’t expect any stereotypical “bow-chicka-wow-wow” sounds emanating from your screen or a montage scene of a pimp walking down a street set to Led Zeppelin. Like The Wire and Treme, The Deuce strives to only use music in ways that are scene-appropriate, or what Pelecanos says is “source music.” Public spaces like diners and bars, where jukeboxes ruled what everyone heard (as well as crude car stereos) was where music was most common -- so that’s where viewers hear things.

“We’d have these discussions about the jukeboxes,” Pelecanos recalls. “Sometimes, song choices would be presented to us as, ‘How about an instrumental from a Blaxploitation film?’ And David and I would say ‘We can’t’ because that wouldn’t be something you could put the quarters in and punch the numbers.”

To that end, many of the songs used throughout are either classic-sounding pop, funk or R&B songs that now have a classic feel to them -- but nothing that mainstream.

“There's a lot of '70s nostalgia these days, and the music of the period is very familiar,” adds the show’s music supervisor Blake Leyh. “We made a conscious decision to feature lesser-known tracks to a large degree -- although we have some of the more obvious favorites like James Brown and the Velvet Underground when appropriate. But much of the music is more likely found in a record collector's obscurities bin.”

They did get one major artist for the show’s credits: Curtis Mayfield, with his song “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” the opening tune from his 1970 debut album Curtis. Pelecanos says it’s a perfect tune to illustrate the show’s sociological, political and economical intersections of this world at the time.

“It ties into ‘Don’t worry, we’re living in the moment, we’ll worry about the consequences later’ theme of the show,” Pelecanos says. “But on a music-geek level, it’s a big thing for me to have that song. It was a shot across the bow of the punk movement in the ‘70s.”

The Deuce premieres Sept. 10 at 9 p.m. EST on HBO.