James Franco signing autographs after a talk at the University of Pennsylvania in 2011. Franco stars in the new HBO series “The Deuce,” a show about New York City in the 1970s. TARA GIANCASPRO/FLICKR VIA CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It seems that David Simon cannot stay away from TV for long – less than two years after his miniseries, “Show Me a Hero,” the celebrated crime writer has returned to HBO with “The Deuce.”

In this latest offering, Simon turns his attention to the neon-soaked, crime-infested streets of 1971 Times Square. More specifically, “The Deuce” follows the illegal sex trade and the rise of the porn industry through the eyes of a large ensemble, which includes mobsters, pimps, prostitutes and the cops tasked with putting them away.

The series is headlined by James Franco and… James Franco; the “Pineapple Express” star does double duty in “The Deuce,” portraying both Vincent and Frankie Martino, twin brothers who become fronts for the mob. Franco, ever the Renaissance man, also directs two episodes of the show. Maggie Gyllenhaal is featured as Candy, an entrepreneurial sex worker who soon finds work in the porn industry.

It is not often that you see a show address porn and the sex trade, let alone focus on their origins, dangers and hardships. Thus, with “The Deuce,” Simon begins to shed light on a difficult part of the American past that, while uncomfortable, deserves to be examined and understood.

If you are a fan of Simon’s earlier work, you might notice some familiar faces among the crowded city streets, including actor Lawrence Gilliard, Jr., who plays NYPD patrolman Chris Alston. Still, “The Deuce’s” cast is mostly made up of character actors that are, to the general audience at least, unknown. While this fact may dissuade some potential viewers, the lack of “star power” works to the show’s benefit, especially considering the over-the-top fashion of the time. Franco’s sideburns and greasy mustache are just barely believable — not enough to break your immersion in the show, but certainly enough for it to start to crack.

Like many of Simon’s previous shows, “The Deuce’s” atmosphere is quite enveloping in its level of detail and design. But the show’s production design and writing do not always add up to excitement. Despite its focus on crime, the show does not indulge in car chases, shootouts or any other excessive displays of action. The series, in its early episodes at least, is far more concerned with character and substance over spectacle.

That is not to say, however, that “The Deuce” is lacking in spectacle; in fact, the show is incredibly well shot, and even cinematic at times. Its recreations of old New York, whether through practical or digital effects, rarely disappoint. Simon’s ability to create a fascinating setting, from the set design and wardrobe to the characters themselves, is where “The Deuce” truly shines.

And this would not really be an HBO show without some violence and sex. Considering the show’s focus on the sex trade and the porn industry, nudity and sex are unavoidable. So if you are looking for a more wholesome period piece, “The Deuce” probably is not for you.

The eight-episode series premiered Sept. 10, and airs Sunday nights on HBO at 9 p.m. And if you are worried that “The Deuce” will be another great show cancelled before its time, be at ease – the series was already renewed for a second season.