A gritty, well-researched take on the 1970s rise of the American adult-film industry.
Streaming on HBO | 2017–present | TV-MA | 2 seasons
Genre: Recent historical fiction, ensemble-driven serial drama
Why I watched: I resisted watching this show when it initially aired last fall because I wasn't in the mood for yet another HBO series that was really just an excuse for gratuitous nudity (see Game of Thrones, Westworld, Boardwalk Empire...) A show about the adult-film industry? I knew what the network was up to. But a few weeks ago, Maggie Gyllenhaal—the series' star and producer—gave a compelling interview on Fresh Air that had me rethinking my earlier judgment. I hope I can convince at least a few of you to do so as well!
You might also like: Prepare yourselves for a swerve! If you enjoy the complex storytelling and ensemble cast but want a little more easy steaminess without the ideological weight, I suggest True Blood (2008, HBO). Sookie Stackhouse fans will know that things fall apart after a few seasons, and that it has blinders on when it comes to issues of race and poverty in the South, but it's still a fun chaser to The Deuce's gravitas.
The Deuce is about pornography in the same way that The Wire is about the War on Drugs. Without taking sides or weaving a moralistic tale, the series instead portrays the complicated systems of power in and around Times Square in 1971. Race, gender, poverty, and sexuality give each of our characters certain choices (or a lack of choices) as they strive to capitalize on an illicit industry at the verge of legitimization. "That macro idea makes The Deuce smart," one reviewer put it. "Its micro detail ... makes it art."
With two male creators (George Pelecanos, David Simon) and an ethically questionable male lead (James Franco), the show could have gone the way of other HBO series, drifting toward objectification and spectacle. But instead The Deuce takes its time to develop complex female characters, underscoring the exploitative aspects of the industry and framing sex in terms of labor rather than pleasure or pain. (Please don't misunderstand me: Screening The Deuce means that you will be staring at copious amounts of nudity.) And from an industrial standpoint, the project took steps to curb possible discomfort when filming highly graphic moments, including hiring an "intimacy coordinator," using Michelle MacLaren as director for the first and last episodes of Season 1, and looping actor Maggie Gyllenhaal in as a producer as well.
"What I wanted was to be a part of the conversation, to be in the room," Gyllenhaal told NPR. "I knew they needed my body, and I wanted to make sure that they also wanted my mind, because I thought, I'm an asset here, not just as an actress." Gyllenhaal's quote is about her own role in the production of The Deuce, but it just as well might have been attributed to her character Eileen "Candy" Merrell. Eileen is a single mother and a fiercely independent prostitute, refusing to work under the patronage of a pimp. While there are others involved in making adult film before her, its Eileen that seems to first realize the capitalist potential behind the project. “It’s America, right?" she says. "When did we ever leave a dollar for the other guy to pick up?" Her trajectory from prostitute to director gives the story's engine gas.
One of the show's strengths is its ensemble cast, which assembles pimps and porn stars, construction workers and street walkers, cops and mobsters, and the post-Stonewall gay community into a rich ecology. Although Franco receives top billing, his character Vincent is more of the show's epicenter than he is its narrative force. (Franco also plays his twin brother, the gambling addict Frankie, recently home from Vietnam.) His bar, the Hi Hat, functions as the watering hole for all of the characters. (This is the part of the show that feels a bit forced.)
The series is cinematically rich, downgrading the image quality so that it looks as crass as its narrative. You can practically smell the cigarette smoke and garbage as the camera pans down the block, cutting between Vincent's eyes and street walker Darlene's (Dominique Fishback) backside as she bends down to pick a piece of trash off the bottom of her bare feet in the early morning light. This sequence at the very end of the first episode's cold open announces exactly what kind of story we're in for: An uneasy tale in which one man's pleasure is another man's woman's pain. But to borrow a line from The Wire, "It's all in the game."