When it comes to titles, writers can go straightforward, describing the protagonist or location — Hannibal, Twin Peaks — or descriptive, evoking a major theme — Game Of Thrones, The Leftovers — or they can go downright cryptic. This new series lands in the latter camp. What does HBO's The Deuce title mean, exactly? The meaning isn't immediately apparent, and it's a little too vague to summon up much in the way of thematic clarity. But a little digging reveals that the moniker creator David Simon (The Wire) chose for his newest drama is incredibly appropriate… and has its roots in old-fashioned slang.
In the 2007 book of essays The Suburbanization of New York, author Marshall Berman writes in his dissertation, "Guys, Dolls And Deals: Old And New Times Square," that the nickname "the deuce" was used throughout the 20th century to refer to the city's most famous thoroughfare: 42nd Street. The iconic street "was not only virtually all male but aggressively threatening to women," Berman writes when discussing the neighborhood's dangerous sexual imbalance in the 1930s.
"For the first time in Times Square's history, 'the deuce,' 42nd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue, became sexually segregated. A polarity developed between the closed, masculinized deuce and the expansive, inclusive 'bowtie,' the X-shaped intersection of Broadway and 7th Avenue, around the corner."
By the '40s, he writes, "The deuce, a street without women, seemed to be turning slowly into one of the seedier parts of the Third World."
According to the New York Times, the 30-year process of redeveloping Times Square into the commercial, tourist-friendly destination it is today began in earnest in 1980 — which means that in the 1970s world in which the HBO series is set, the dangerous and seedy "deuce" was in its last, dying gasps… even if nobody knew it quite yet.
But, like any good writing choice, the show's title has more than one meaning. While on a literal level it refers to the street on which most of the action is set, the word "deuce" also has various other meanings as well. As a noun, it can be used to refer to a two-dollar bill, emphasizing the commodification of sex that is central to the show's plot; or it can be a gambling term referring to any playing card or dice with a value of two, highlighting the risks that the characters are taking; or it can be a tennis term referring to a tie, in which either player has to score two successive points to win the game, perhaps paralleling the competition between the city and the streets over who controls "the deuce."
Perhaps the simplest use of the word "deuce" in regards to the HBO series is as an adjective, describing anything that comes in pairs of two. That's an obvious reference to The Deuce star James Franco, who portrays two different characters: Frankie and Vincent Martino, Brooklyn-born brothers who become fronts for the mob on the show's titular street.
Although it may seem cryptic at first, it quickly becomes clear that The Deuce is an exceptionally clever title for the upcoming drama, since it describes not just the physical location of the series, but also the show's themes of odds-making, and the dual nature of its twin protagonists. If the actual episodes are as full of meaning and subtext as the title, then audiences are going to be in for a rich and rewarding ride.