Super: 1971. New York is crawling with pimps, prostitutes, and regular Joes trying any scam they can to stay alive. James Franco plays Vince, a guy who manages seedy bars and tries to keep his family afloat. He has a special knack for marketing (his cocktail waitresses wear leotards) and he’s about to be introduced to the possibilities of the porn industry.
This week, I’m breaking down the structure of THE DEUCE pilot. Created by David Simon and George Pelecanos, the show is a beautiful example of their unique ability to drop us into a specific world and make us feel like we live there. The pilot script is a complicated weave of multiple characters, held together by Vince, the protagonist, at its center.
The structure of the pilot is loose, and roughly based in three acts. It’s a slow build to a tiny moment at the end that plays as a shattering climax (and maybe the inciting incident of Season One?)
Some of you might be put off by the harsh reality portrayed, and the overt sexuality, but trust me, these writers are juggling so many balls and weaving them so effortlessly, that we feel like we’re watching a gorgeous gritty novel.
The pilot is 90 minutes long. Here’s how it shakes out using Three Act Structure and The Hero’s Journey story models.
Notice how Vince is the narrative spine, and the other characters weave around him.
Vince is a low level bartender. He closes up late one night, walks across the street with that day’s cash to make a drop at the bank. A car races toward him. He quickly dumps the money into the bank slot, gets threatened with a gun, and is forced to beg for his life. The robbers pistol whip him.
He staggers home, blood dripping from his head, and discovers his wife is out partying. He calls his boss to say he can’t make an early call to meet the liquor distributor because he just got attacked, but his boss tells him he has to be there. Clearly Vince wants something better than this, but is completely powerless.
He moves through the neighborhood. He knows all the pimps and prostitutes who work there. They like him.
As the supporting characters are introduced, we meet two pimps (Leroy and CC,) who hang out at the bus station. CC picks up a new girl, Lori, to be in his “stable.” Abby goes to NYU and is clearly having sex with her professor. Candy is the only prostitute who doesn’t have a pimp. She keeps all her own money, but is somewhat less safe on the streets because of this (she’s threatened with a “Drano cocktail” by one especially nefarious dude in a velvet suit.) Two cops bust the prostitutes, but then sit with their pimps at the shoe shine stand the next day and argue about who has the better shoes.
CALL TO ADVENTURE/INCITING INCIDENT
Vince works at an unsuccessful Korean family restaurant. The owner’s going to have to go out of business in a month. Vinny suggests to the owner that they can invite whores and street people who “also need to drink.”
REFUSAL TO THE CALL
Vince has bigger ideas for the Korean bar, but is determined to save his marriage and keep working his two bar jobs. He’s about to leave the dive bar where he works to surprise his wife and take her out to dinner. His boss, again, says he has to stay. Vince quits. He goes home. His wife is out partying again.
He goes to find her, and discovers she’s playing pool with some rough guys. He tries to take her home, and one of the guys wonders if he’s lost his balls. He looks at his wife and walks out alone.
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
Vince goes home, packs his stuff, looks at his kids, and leaves. He moves into the seedy hotel where all the prostitutes bring their johns. (see how he’s stepping out of his ordinary world into the special world of the street people he knows from work?)
TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES
Vince is determined to bring more customers into the Korean Bar. He sees leotards in a store window. Buys them for the waitresses. More people start coming in.
Abby, the NYU Student, is busted trying to buy some speed for her idiot roommates. One of the cops, Flanagan (whose police name tag reads, “Flanaga”) brings her into the station but decides not to bust her. He takes her to the Korean Bar where she meets Vinny. They talk about books, and connect– sparks fly.
APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE
CC is playing Lori against one of his other “women,” Ashley. They bring in lots of money for him, are exhausted. He tells them to get their asses out there and earn more.
Darlene (my favorite character) is paid by her John to watch the film version of a Tale of Two Cities with him. She cries because the movie is sad and then, nervous, asks for more money because her pimp’s going to be mad she spent so much time with him. He gives it to her. She kisses him on the cheek.
Back at the bar, Abby confronts Vinny about how he’s objectifying his waitresses. He asks if she wants to work there. She says no. She stays with Vinny in the bar, hanging out, until dawn. She takes a cab to try to make her econ exam, but decides not to go in.
Candy goes to her mother’s house. Her mom is taking care of her son. Candy gives her money. We see that her childhood bedroom is covered with Marilyn Monroe posters. We also see that she loves her son.
Vinnie meets with his wife. She apologizes for all the crappy stuff she did. She tells him she knows he’s been cheating on her too. It’s clear their marriage is over.
SEIZING THE SWORD
Vinnie’s wife asks him to come home. He walks away from her and their kids.
It’s raining. Hard. Ashley is soaked to the skin. She rushes into the Korean Bar to find CC and asks if she can have the night off, it’s freezing. He says yes.
In his seedy room, Vince has sex with one of the waitresses who works for him. They hear a scream. He goes out into the hallway, looks through a window into a stairwell and sees that CC is holding a knife to a terrified Ashley’s neck, threatening her.
Vincent looks disturbed. Will he step in?
He turns and moves back to his room. CC opens the stairwell door and walks past him and says, “Hey Vincent.”
We hold on Vincent, not looking happy. Maybe it’s what Abby said to him in the bar, or maybe he’s just seeing what’s happening to the women around him for the first time.
He goes into his room and shuts the door.
What’s so beautiful about this pilot script is that it doesn’t feel like it has a structure, but it does. With Vincent at its center, the plot weaves in all the characters dreams for themselves, and the stakes involved if they don’t get what they want.
The narrative moves forward in tiny subtle moves, but by the end of the episode, Vinny has committed to the sleazy world he just used to work in, and is having his eyes opened to the plight of women. The supporting characters are reaching for other things too. In a future episode, when we see Darlene reading A Tale of Two Cities, and Candy coming to life as she tells her mother she wants to be a filmmaker, we are so connected to these people that every yearning they have is ours.
Take Action! Have you been wanting to write a pilot, but don’t know how to start because you have lots of characters and the narrative feels more like a novel? Watch THE DEUCE. The way we get three act structure as a tapestry, with Vinny at the core, is a masterclass in design and character set up and development. In that last shot of Vinny, where he doesn’t like what he sees, we get a sense that this show is going somewhere deep.
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