TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, has reviews of two TV series by very high-profile creators. One, David Lynch's "Twin Peaks: The Return," just ended on Showtime. The other, David Simon's "The Deuce," is just about to begin on HBO.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: David Simon by now has more than earned his reputation as someone who creates very smart dramas about very nuanced subjects and takes his time doing it. "The Wire," a deep dive into the various political and economic influences on the city of Baltimore, is his masterpiece. But he's also done amazing work covering everything from modern warfare in "Generation Kill" to a city coming back after a natural disaster in "Treme." "The Deuce" is another ambitious combination of rich character studies and complex sociological forces. This time the setting is Times Square, the time is 1971, and the subject is the sea change in that seedy environment brought about by the rise of a new, more socially acceptable grade of pornography spearheaded by the trendy X-rated movie "Deep Throat."
For HBO's "The Deuce," which premieres Sunday, Simon has some perfect collaborators to explore these particular mean streets. His writing and production partners include George Pelecanos and Richard Price, and the director of the premiere episode is Michelle MacLaren from "Breaking Bad." The look of "The Deuce" is pure early Scorsese. The whole place feels like "Taxi Driver" if Robert De Niro's taxi drops you off in Times Square. "The Deuce" is overflowing with characters with their own hopes, problems and quirks, including twin brothers played by James Franco.
And the standout is a street prostitute named Candy, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose no-nonsense approach to her work may take her far, especially as she takes an interest in the potential profits from more mainstream porn films. Even when she's dealing with a young virgin who's upset because his erotic encounter with her ends too quickly, Candy is all business.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DEUCE")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Stuart) It doesn't seem fair.
MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) Fair?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Stuart) You barely had to do anything, and it costs just as much as someone who takes longer.
GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) What do you do, Stuart (ph)?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Stuart) I'm in school.
GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) What's your daddy do?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Stuart) He sells cars. He's got a dealership.
GYLLENHAAL: (As Candy) And that's his job, right? Someone comes in, knows just the car he wants, doesn't dick around, doesn't need a long test drive, doesn't argue about the color or whatever. Does he give him the car for less? Does he pay less than the guy who comes in, takes forever, got to drive five or six cars, talk about the radio, the whitewalls, everything else before he's done and ready to buy? No. He doesn't give the easy customer two cars for the price of one, right? This is my job, Stuart.
BIANCULLI: Gyllenhaal is really impressive in this series. The danger was that her character, like this drama, would slip into exploitation. But that never happens. There's no glamour whatsoever in "The Deuce," just people looking for ways to survive or gain an advantage. The look of the series is perfect. And over eight episodes you really get to not only know the characters, but watch them change, and not usually for the better. My only complaint with "The Deuce" is that the entire first season is a scene-setting prologue. It establishes the world that with the arrival of "Deep Throat" is about to be upended. That's the story I really want to see, but I guess I'll just have to wait until next season.
To get a satisfying resolution to Showtime's "Twin Peaks: The Return," on the other hand, I'm afraid I'll have to wait until the Black Lodge freezes over. The 18-hour David Lynch-Mark Frost series ended Sunday, continuing the groundbreaking TV story they had begun in 1990, and I'm leaving this new one just as perplexed and conflicted as when I started watching. But you have to give David Lynch points at least for consistency. The original "Twin Peaks" on ABC ended with Special Agent Dale Cooper's body being inhabited by a mysterious lookalike, with Audrey Horne's fate completely unresolved, and with Laura Palmer's ghostly presence continuing to haunt the entire enterprise.
"Twin Peaks: The Return" ended exactly the same way on all three counts. It even deepened the dreamlike state that the show was so expert at concocting. For the last half of the final hour, we watched Cooper watching another version or two of his own existence, a dream within a dream ending with one final nightmare. I should resent all this wheels-within-wheels trickery, but I don't. When the sequel reset "Twin Peaks" to zero by showing once again the opening scenes of the original pilot, but this time without the discovery of the dead body of Laura Palmer wrapped in plastic, it was kind of thrilling.
And when Lynch himself, playing FBI Agent Gordon Cole, delivered some ridiculously convoluted exposition after an equally ridiculous long pause, I knew I was supposed to be amused and not take any of this too seriously.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN")
DAVID LYNCH: (As Gordon Cole) Now, listen to me. For twenty-five years I've kept something from you, Albert. Before he disappeared, Major Briggs shared with me and Cooper his discovery of an entity, an extreme negative force called in olden times Jiao Dai. Over time, it's become Judy.
BIANCULLI: Like the original "Twin Peaks," this new one leaves us hanging. And I'm not expecting any more episodes to arrive or, if they do, to make things any clearer. But once again, Lynch and company took us on an incomparable and sometimes unforgettable ride.
GROSS: David Bianculli teaches TV and film history at Rowan University and is the author of "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific."
(SOUNDBITE OF ANGELO BADALAMENTI'S "DANCE OF THE DREAM MAN (INSTRUMENTAL)")
GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews with John Le Carre and Loudon Wainwright, or our 30th anniversary retrospective, which we broadcast all last week, check out our podcast.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANGELO BADALAMENTI'S "DANCE OF THE DREAM MAN (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.