Sex, Drugs and Urban Renewal
A Look At Season 2 of The Deuce
It’s the fall of 1977 in New York City. Ed Koch has just been elected mayor. The pornography industry is now in its most artistic form. The new administrations plans to get rid of the red light district. The gay rights movement and the women’s lib movement are picking up steam. And it’s looking like Times Square is going to become a center for urban renewal. As showrunner David Simon would say, a new day is not dawning.
There’s been a gap of five years between the first and second seasons of The Deuce, an unusually large time jump for a writer who tends to take things at a leisurely pace. In many ways, though, this allows Simon and his many gifted writers to take a larger look at how much things have changed in the red-light district and how much they haven’t. For one thing, the world of prostitution which is at the core of the story, has changed dramatically. Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has gone from a prostitute to a pornography director with aspirations towards art that her fellow producer (David Krumholz) does not appreciate. Many of the prostitutes who have been at the center have moved into the X-rated film industry, and their pimps have now moved into the phase of ‘manager’. But, as C.C. ( Gary Carr) is finding out, its becoming increasingly hard out there for a pimp. This is illustrated in the opening scene of the second episode of the season where he walks into the airport and tries to chat up a young girl into the world of prostitution, a mirror image of a scene in the first season. This time, though, he gets through his pitch, and the woman just asks him for directions for the adult movie center. This is leading to C.C. trying to figure out if there might be new sources for his talent. As he tells Candy: “A pimp’s basically a performer, right?)
Things are changing in a lot of ways around the Deuce. Ashley, the college dropout who eventually became Vincent’s lover, has now become more of an activists, trying to find a way to keep prostitutes safe and finding protection. Paul, the gay man who befriended Vincent, and became his barkeep, is trying to form a bar of his own with Vincent’s help. And put upon Detective Alston (Larry Gilliard) is becoming increasingly peeved by the corruption around him, and the fact that the new administration has ideas that they think will help but his bosses can clearly see as wishful thinking.But things are getting a lot darker. Bobby (Chris Bauer) a simple family at the start of season 1, now has a wife, a girlfriend, and a mistress, and has to deal with the fact that massage parlors are opening all around his business, and that the trade is getting a lot younger.
For a period piece, it’s remarkable how relevant The Deuce can be at times. In the last episode, a black porn star got pissed when she learned that she was paid half as much as her white co-star for the same amount of work. Lori, a prostitute who was nominated for an award for her performance in a film had a joyous trip to LA where she experienced a kind of freedom she just doesn’t have in New York. When she returned, she tried to advocate for herself — and her pimp hit her with her award, breaking it. And in one of the most heartbreaking scenes, Candy, easily the most independent woman on the show, realized that in order to get funding for a dream project, she would have to whore herself out again. The scenes in the aftermath are among the best work that Maggie Gyllenhaal has ever done.
I have gone through the brilliance of the series and buried the lead. James Franco has been in the press for sexual harassment charges himself earlier this year, and while that does hold a stigma over everything he does — especially in the context of The Deuce — the fact remains his dual act as brothers Frank and Vincent is among the best work he’s ever done. Much like Ewan McGregor in Fargo last year, Franco manages to create two characters who have various levels of chaos in their lives. Vincent continues to be the bane of his brother’s existence, and its beginning to look like both may be in over their heads.
The Deuce is another in the line of David Simon’s work on the evolution and collapse of the American city. Just as The Wire did for Baltimore and (in a lesser sense Treme did for New Orleans, The Deuce creates a picture of New York in a bygone era. Simon’s message for the series is a little hazier than the others (it may yet be that the industrialists win the day) , but his portraits of individual characters are stronger than they have been since The Wire. We know we’ll get a chance to see what his vision will be (the series has been renewed for a third and final season), but we all know that in the world of capitalism and sex, capitalism always wins. This shows just proves that they’re a lot closer than we want to admit.
My score: 4.75 stars.