It feels like only yesterday HBO was trotting out a big budget show set to explore the world of NYC in the gritty 1970s, with all the sex and drugs and naughty words that entails, featuring an all-star team behind the cameras as well as an ensemble cast of excellent character actors in front. That show, Vinyl, was a colossal bust despite the prodigious talent involved (including Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, showrunner Terrence Winter, and stars Bobby Cannavale and Ray Romano), getting cancelled after it was renewed for a second season due to dismal ratings and even more dismal reviews. So it's understandable that two years since that disaster, the prospect of watching yet another HBO show set in the NYC of the gritty 1970s with an all-star team of writers, directors and actors might make you feel more nervous than Richie Finestra on a quaaludes & coke binge.

But despite the shared setting (and equally impressive production values), the comparisons between The Deuce and Vinyl end there. The new series, which premieres on Sunday on HBO (although technically the 90 minute pilot is already available to HBO subscribers), has none of the toxic masculine nostalgia that permeated Vinyl: there is nobody waxing poetic about REAL MUSIC, MAN, no magical trips to CBGB, or ghosts of dead friends haunting the margins. Instead, The Deuce, created by the brilliant team of David Simon & George Pelecanos, surveys this period with a nonjudgmental, journalist's eye for detail as it follows the stories of more than a dozen characters connected to the pornography and sex industry around Times Square.

In addition to exploring the historical development of pornography, the show is primarily interested in examining how capitalism drove the exploitation and misogyny at the heart of the sex industry. As a result, the show conjures the spirit of The Wire like no other attempt since (even the typography on the opening credits is similar!); it's an addictive storytelling machine that you won't be able to stop watching.

James Franco has a dual role as twins Vincent and Frankie Martino, the former a good-natured bartender who gets caught up with the mafia, the latter a degenerate gambler and life of the party. (To add to the Franconess of it all, Franco also steps behind the camera for two episodes, so there are moments when you may feel like you are Being James Francovich.)

While Frankie is a bit of an enigma, popping up like a whirling dervish to wreak havoc then disappearing once again while the adults sort out his messes, Franco does some of his best work ever as the hard-working, ambitious Vincent, who is something of a nexus point to all the characters who drink at his bar, including the mobsters who begin to get involved with the sex industry. (The character of Vincent is based on a real Times Square bartender whose stories inspired Simon and Pelecanos to develop the show—that guy really did have a twin brother as well!)

As great as Franco is, the best performance in the series goes to Maggie Gyllenhaal who plays Eileen “Candy” Merrell, a single mom-turned-streetwalker who refuses to work with pimps (as she tells one pimp, "nobody makes money off of my pussy but me"), and seems stuck in a never-ending cycle of having the worst day ever, at least until she gets interested in working in pornography. Her struggles to improve her lot in life while holding on to her dignity provide some of the most brutal and magnificent moments on the show. (Gyllenhaal is also a producer on the show, and talked about how she influenced the arc of her character here.)

Franco and Gyllenhaal are surrounded by a fantastic ensemble as well, including a number of Wire alums: Chris Bauer plays Bobby Dwyer, Vincent and Frankie’s brother-in-law who is eager to get sucked into the life; Gbenga Akinnagbe is tender and menacing as pimp Larry Brown; Method Man plays an even sleazier smooth-talking pimp; and Lawrence Gilliard Jr. plays Chris Alston, a NYPD officer who treats everyone equally. Among the rest of the cast, standouts include Dominique Fishback as Darlene, a prostitute who takes up an interest in literature; Gary Carr as C.C., a pimp who truly believes in his own mythology; David Krumholtz as porn director Harvey Wasserman; Chris Coy as Paul Hendrickson, a gay bartender who gets involved with the emerging LGBT community; and Margarita Levieva as an intellectually-curious outsider to this world who becomes fascinated by Vincent.

It's important to note that while there is plenty of graphic nudity and simulated sex work depicted (and to truly engage with this particular world, you do have to show how humans are marginalized and commodified like this), the show goes out of its way to make it as non-titillating as possible. In shining a light on the depressing reality of transactional sex, Simon and Pelecanos explained to Alan Sepinwall, "we always talked to whatever director was working with us and explained that we’re not shooting porn, we’re shooting the shooting of porn. So the way it’s lit is un-beautiful and there’s a lot of shots of people just sitting around on set, bored." They were also able to achieve this by getting lots of women, gay and trans people, and people of color involved behind-the-scenes in the creation of the show, including director Michelle MacLaren (Breaking Bad, Game Of Thrones, The Leftovers)—you can read an excellent profile about her and her involvement in the show here.

The other thing to remember in all this: despite it being a serious show about themes of exploitation, it is often as fun as it is engrossing, whether through the Franco-on-Franco banter, the period-appropriate soundtrack—the theme song is Curtis Mayfield's "(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go"—or moments like a police officer ordering Chinese food for the prostitutes he just brought in as part of regular roundups. As Pelecanos put it, "We’re not trying to lecture people. That’s not a dirty word, 'entertainment.' I want people to keep coming back every week because they’re having a good time watching the show. And then through the back doors, you give them something else."