David Simon is one of the rare figures in the entertainment industry that should be remembered first and foremost as a thinker rather than a showrunner or a journalist (his early years). Best known as the creator of The Wire, Simon’s latest show The Deuce is also an expository work, this time following the boom of the pornography industry (and its effects on all participating parties) in 1970s New York. Although beleaguered by a slow start, The Deuce becomes another proud showpiece of Simon’s from its final two episodes.
Perhaps the one single way to signify a person’s excellence in their craft is that they are able to present their views, life through their lens, no matter the topic that their work revolves around. The Deuce meshes documentary-style filmmaking with fictional storytelling as a means to present some sense of historical realism while making it simpler to expose fundamental problems in social institutions and in people’s mindsets. History in itself is never so simple, but it can be simplified when taken from a certain perspective.
Simon considers that if pornography must exist, then it is unethical for it to be illegal since the women are unable to have their work copyrighted. This means that they are unable to receive payment for the success of their work since it may be reproduced and distributed freely without pay. Simon also delves into the immoral relation that the police have with parlor owners. Since the police are unable to effectively prevent prostitution, they allow it to exist indoors as long as they receive a cut of the profits. They succeed in one regard- the women are off the streets- but they fail in another in that they are incapable of enforcing the law (and incapable of hiding their corruption). For this reason, Simon’s work isn’t pure entertainment- it’s politics masking as entertainment. But, it isn’t heavy-handed.
Simon has a way with creating large casts of multifaceted characters, this time starring James Franco in two roles, that of twin brothers, Vincent “Vinnie” and Frankie. At the start of the show, Vinnie is a bartender at a Korean restaurant and bar, making a living through tips and a minuscule wage. His brother is also broke, but as a result of a gambling addiction. He frequently manipulates Vinnie in paying off his debts and leeches off of Vinnie’s later success.
Like any good bartender, Vinnie is easy to talk with and, in general, just seems to draw people to him by his presence. To better attract people to his bar, he tries having the women wear leotards and, not unexpectedly, the bar soon becomes packed. Vinnie’s success attracts the attention of a Gambino family capo, Rudy Piplio (Michael Rispoli), who offers to promote Vinnie to a better bar, the Hi-Hat, as part of a front for his family operations. Vinnie wants nothing to do with Rudy’s criminal exploits, but he accepts the job for its earning potential. Vinnie’s internal conflict is one that comes into increasing crisis as Rudy offers Vinnie oversight of a parlor- a prospect that disgusts Vinnie to the point of rarely entering the establishment- and then a second, multi-story parlor, and then… We’ll see what the second season offers. Rudy’s business exploits are more to the suiting of Frankie who gets sent on “missions” by Rudy and sweet talks his brother to remain involved with the capo.
Simon uses the Hi-Hat as the central locale to which all of The Deuce’s characters find themselves gravitating towards at some point or another during the season. It becomes a sanctuary for pimps, prostitutes, policemen, and civilians alike. Sometimes at the same time.
An unexpected attendee, and later barmaid, of Vinnie’s bar is Abby, (Margarita Levieva) a recent college dropout. We are introduced to her in a scene where she has sex with one of her professors and upon her decision to drop out of college, we expect entirely for her to become a prostitute or involved in pornography as per genre convention. However, Abby provides a feminist counterpoint to The Deuce, she entirely oblivious of the lives of prostitutes until meeting and befriending them at Vinnie’s bar. Abby wears a leotard as she works, but a conversation with another prostitute makes her realize that she is selling her body as well- merely in another way. Abby refuses to wear the leotard for a day, but soon returns to wearing it thereafter.
As youthful embodiment of the counterculture, Abby is a frustrating character to watch since she, at times, seems to fight the standards while at others succumbs to them. She’s an idealist, but at the same time flirts with reality. Her eventual romance with Vinnie sparks questions since Vinnie is much older and fundamentally doesn’t understand the youth, previously married with children (which he tries to block out entirely), a man of his time, and entirely permissive of the cruel realities he faces. She corrects his occasionally objectifying language and makes it clear to him that she is entirely aware of the purpose of the leotards. Yet she continues to wear one for work and continues her intimacy with Vinnie. One scene to watch out for in a later season will be when she learns of Vinnie’s involvement with the parlors. Although he is opposed to his involvement and is only involved with them as a source of wealth and to appease his brother, no doubt will Vinnie be faced with difficult choices once Abby finds out. If she doesn’t outright leave him, that is.
The Deuce features several actors who have appeared in The Wire, most notably Chris Bauer (Frank Sobotka in The Wire) as Bobby Dwyer, Vinnie’s brother-in-law, and Lawrence Gillard Jr. (D’Angelo Barksdale in The Wire) as Chris Alston. Gillard Jr. has a brilliant way of expressing inner conflict through his expressions and much like in The Wire, his character finds himself at crossroads, this time as a police officer rather than a drug dealer. Alston falls in love with Sandra Washington (Natalie Paul), a reporter investigating the sex industry. His dual position as an informant to her and as a boyfriend tests not only his loyalty to the NYPD, but also his integrity. Sandra wants to break a story, using the information she acquired from Chris, detailing how the NYPD is complicit in the parlors’ existence. Yet she comes into difficulties of her own with her editor who wishes to censor parts of the story.
Apart from James Franco and his double performance, the most notable addition to the cast of The Deuce is Maggie Gyllenhaal. She plays a prostitute named Candy who is a bit older and wiser than the other women. She refuses to work with a pimp, knowing the financial and emotional dependence that many women fall victim to when working with pimps, but at the same time she is not protected from the men she services. After a particularly brutal beating, Candy decides that she is done for good with the streets. She befriends a pornography director and begins to work with him, seeking to one day direct the videos- and profit from their creation- herself. Unlike her director, Candy knows how to work with the women in the videos and how to make the films more erotic. Her trajectory, like Abby’s, is something that we’ll have to wait and wonder about until Season 2.
The Deuce, a pet name for 42nd Street between Seventh Avenue and Eighth Avenue, is almost a character in itself, the street referenced directly by name in the show numerous times. Much like the city of Fargo in its eponymous film, The Deuce is a centerpiece to all the action- fictional and real- that occurs in the show. “Some of it happened, some of it didn’t happen. Some of it might have happened. But all of it could have happened” says Simon. The historical reveal of a famous erotic film at its premiere and a few of The Deuce’s characters’ attendance is evidence of this and forms one of the highlights of the season. Set pieces for New York aren’t quite as grimy as the city actually was in the 70s, but most other details are period appropriate.
However, since the series takes place outside the realm of many viewers’ memories, additional screentime is spent in exposition and in educating the viewer about the circumstances surrounding the Golden Age of Porn. A particularly attentive viewer could easily skip the first few episodes of the season and not miss any important details. Although not devastating to the show, plentiful exposition is hardly desirable. By the season’s final two episodes, however, every minute is economic and full of expression as we come to expect from Simon.
The closing of the season includes a montage, featuring the Ray Charles song ‘Careless Love’, to indicate the sense of fatalism within characters’ lives and to reveal perpetuating cycles of entrapment. In all, The Deuce is able to convey a very Chomskyan idea- that institutions exist to maintain the norm rather than improve quality of life, a tragedy that Simon expresses time and time again.