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John Doyle: The Deuce is a gripping, strangely lyrical portrait of lives in the grime

It's the slow-burning story and the depth of the characters that matter in The Deuce. It's set in a formidably grimy world – New York in 1971, and among the sex workers, the pimps, the drug addicts, the bartenders and waitresses, the desperate and doomed. It is outstanding television drama and for all the surface raunch it contains, it is a work of tremulous intimacy.

The Deuce (starts Sunday, HBO 9 p.m. with a 90-minute opening episode) is the work of David Simon and George Pelecanos, who wrote The Wire, with Simon being the creator and producer of that classic series. They also wrote Treme, that soulful panorama of life in New Orleans post-Katrina. As with those series, The Deuce is almost drained of melodrama. It is primarily anchored in a keen observation of detail and unfiltered representation of the society it depicts. The depiction will appear, to some viewers, as shockingly sympathetic because it does not portray all the pimps as hideous villains or all the sex workers as brutally exploited.

It is a coolly mesmeric depiction of the dynamics of power, delusion and exploitation. It's about money, sex, being trapped at the bottom and getting on with things. To be more specific, really, it's a work of old-school naturalism – a more pessimistic and investigative form of realism, one that attempts to construe human behaviour as emphatically linked with the environment.

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The attempt here is successful: The series grabs and holds you on its journey into the seamiest side of urban life in the United States just a few decades ago. It lulls you. It is made with exquisite precision and allows its charters to breathe.

There is such a richness of characters, the series almost defies an easy plot summary. At its centre, often, mind you, is James Franco, unnervingly good as twin brothers, Vince and Frankie Martino. Vince is a solid, weary, hard-working guy. He is a bartender at two joints and is gone from home so much he's essentially remote from his children and philandering wife (Zoe Kazan).

Frankie is a rogue, accruing huge gambling debts that lead, inevitably, to hoodlums demanding that Vince pay up. Money must be made to survive and both brothers are drawn into mob schemes for a stretch of 42nd Street that is really about massage parlours and porn.

In the swirl of other characters, the mainstay is Maggie Gyllenhaal as Eileen, who works the streets as Candy, has no pimp and steadily forges her own path. She's got a son who lives with his grandmother and Eileen is getting weary of the street. The attraction of porn has to be understood from her perspective – it sure beats pounding the filthy streets and taking clients to seedy hotels.

While Franco and Gyllenhaal are clearly the attention-getting stars here, the series is, in David Simon's way, never just about their characters. There are lengthy scenes, such as when two cops engage with several pimps at a corner shoe-shine stand, that have as much resonance and meaning as what Franco and Gyllenhaal's characters do.

There are several points in the first episodes where, in the hands of others, The Deuce would be about sex and the seedy glamour of the street. But that never happens. There is an evenness of tone that never wavers, a storytelling engine that is fully entrenched in the setting. The New York of the time is portrayed with uncanny attention to grime, garbage, cigarettes, booze and sweat. Some viewers will want to take a shower after the first episode and that's fine – the directing by Canadian Michelle MacLaren is wonderfully evocative.

This is not a setting where romance and serendipity can blossom. This is a place of banality – lust, sex, theft, betrayal and degradation happen but in the ordinary course of things, not as a high drama. The cops are corrupt, drugs are easily found and everybody drinks and smokes too much and tries to get by.

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If there is a core theme in all of what we see, it is that money normalizes even the most perverse of activities. Characters are dangerous and damaged but, so what? They are part of the mundane machinery of life in a place where everybody is just tying to survive with a little dignity.

The Deuce is part of the Primetime program at TIFF this year (It will screen on Sunday and Tuesday). Its inclusion makes strange sense, but the description of it in the TIFF materials is this: "Drawing upon the impressively researched world building techniques that they employed in The Wire and Treme, showrunners David Simon and George Pelecanos's vision captures the moment when sex work rose to mass-market commodification through ingenuity and technology."

That's only partly true because the series is more than the opening episode to be shown at the festival. It is eight episodes, each packed with all that keen observation to create an unfiltered, densely packed portrait of a group of intersecting characters. It's not really about when "sex work rose to mass-market commodification" – it's a beautiful, strangely lyrical portrait of lives lived in the grime and the filth, some seeking solace in decency and others, not. It is stunningly good television drama.

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