New York City, Christmas 1977. Disco and punk are at their cultural peaks. The sex industry is booming while Ed Koch is trying to clean up Times Square. Pimps still walk the streets fighting with pornography and feminism for relevancy. Cops no longer bust in the doors to gay bars. Cocaine has made its presence known in the city. The “’60s freedoms” have gone from a burgeoning business into a full-blown trade. It’s a glorious time that’s not meant to last.
Director Alex Hall opens the second season of The Deuce with a lengthy tracking shot of Candy walking into Vincent’s new discotheque Club 366 scored to Barry White’s “Dance the Night Away.” The shot has a twofold effect: First, to illustrate Candy’s newfound fame and notoriety as a porn triple-threat (actress, producer, director), and second, to reintroduce us to some of the series’ main characters. Candy says hello to Lori and C.C., the former a marquee-level porn actress and the latter still “her man,” albeit one desperate to retain control. She then chats up Frankie, the “prodigal son” still fucking up as usual, but this time with mob money and a healthy drug habit. Finally, Vincent, the sucker with the heart of gold who resides behind the bar, pours her a drink. The two marvel at how far they’ve come, even while they both silently recognize that it ain’t all peaches and cream.
In terms of television mechanics, “Our Raison d’Etre” is a “catchup” episode, an attempt to remind the audience of the series’ world and its enormous ensemble cast. It’s primarily organized by a simple story that takes us around the city so we can meet everyone again while also showcasing the changes that have occurred in the five-year gap between seasons. Though a little narratively clunky, it’s a clever gambit that’s all but necessary for The Deuce, a show that depends on complete immersion into the ins and outs of various establishments. There are so many people and places to keep track of that an episode like “Our Raison d’Etre” feels like a blessing.
The simple story involves Vincent searching for Frankie after he cleans out Showland, the coin-operated nudie booth parlor that he owns, to pay off his gambling debts. After visiting Showland, managed by a woman named Irene, to find out just how much Frankie has taken from the till (a little over $10,000), Vincent travels to all of the joints Rudy Pipilo owns to pick up Rudy’s cut and to find his no-good brother. He goes to the brothel run by his brother-in-law Bobby, who had the sense to put the young Bernice behind the bar but still uses the establishment as his own personal bacchanal away from home. Then, to the Hi-Hat, now owned by his long-term girlfriend Abby, who has turned it into a punk hangout. Afterwards, a porn shoot run by Candy to get a number on a porn actress that Frankie has been seeing. After that, Paul’s, the gay bar owned by former Hi-Hat bartender Paul Hendrickson. Then, back to the Hi-Hat for a quick drink before starting work at Club 366. It’s as if George Pelecanos and David Simon have given the audience a neat little roadmap of all of The Deuce’s main locations.
Meanwhile, The Deuce also brings us up to speed in the worlds of porn, pimping, and law enforcement. Candy has become something of an auteur in the porn world, trying to push the medium into new experimental territory much to the chagrin of producer and director Harvey Wasserman, who has lost a ton of weight in the interim. Influenced by the counterculture work of the late ‘60s, she edits her films with an eye toward the female gaze, attempting to capture a different side of sexual dynamics. She still shows up in front of the camera, though, but now muses, in what has to be a wink to The Deuce’s matter-of-fact explicit sexuality, that the most boring part of the porn industry is the actual fucking. She’s an artist now, and the real excitement is in front of a flatbed.
C.C., Larry, and Rodney still have their stable of women, but it’s clear they can feel the weight of a new era, one in which women might express their own sexual agency, God forbid. C.C. cons porn directors out of an extra couple hundred bucks because he thinks it’s good business, but it’s really making him look like an amateur and Lori look unprofessional. Larry’s efforts to get Darlene to stop reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon is to literally say “Books are stupid,” but he doesn’t know that she’s already received her G.E.D. and is on her way to taking night classes. If second wave feminism is a rising tide, then the prostitutes are the lifted boats.
Finally, there’s Chris Alston, now a detective in the NYPD, who’s working a new case of a tourist stabbed in the Deuce. What initially looks like a nasty mugging gone wrong turns out to be a wholesome family man looking to get a little action after taking his wife to see Beatlemania. He comes across Gene Goldman (Luke Kirby), an aide to Ed Koch who’s spearheading the “Midtown Enforcement Project,” but Alston has no faith in the system to do anything worthwhile. He’s on good terms with his former precinct, even if he can’t help out his former partner Danny after his wife kicks him out and he chastises Officer Haddix for his apathetic view on crime. He even has a new girlfriend, Latisha, a nurse whom he lovingly says lives in the same neighborhood as Pam Grier in Foxy Brown.
Beyond the main narratives, The Deuce does great work in the margins to continue to fill out the world of 1977. Television, the Talking Heads, and Modern Lovers filter through the soundtrack, and the new opening credits sequence features Elvis Costello’s “This Year’s Girl.” Abby has adopted Marxist principles by involving herself in labor disputes, the latest being a former stripper who staged a walkout after not receiving proper wages. Vincent unfavorably compares Frankie to Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero. One would need to watch episodes of The Deuce multiple times to pick up on all the various nods in the production. (Speaking of: The Deuce might be the only show on television that all but demands either a state-of-the-art sound system or headphones-only viewing. So much information is baked into the intricate sound design.)
In the end, Vincent reluctantly forgives Frankie’s debt after learning that he spent the money on a ring for his new fiancée, actress and dancer Christina Fuego. He retires to his apartment and finally finds the time to make love with Abby. Hall crosscuts between Vincent and Abby’s sex scene with Candy watching a reel of porn. Reality and the illusion sit side by side, the latter trying to approximate the former but always coming up short. Candy wants to bring the realism of sexuality into pornography in spite of audience, who wants the fantasy without all the messy complications. Vincent is just happy to get the real thing amid all the headaches. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” says Hamlet, quoted earlier by Paul. Everyone’s personal philosophies have only begun to expand. What will they consume next?
Other Tricks and Pricks
• I love Vincent’s bemused reactions to the more progressive world that surrounds him. When he visits Paul’s bar and sees a guy wearing chaps, he wonders where he puts his wallet. He looks at Abby’s new Georgia O’Keefe-style painting and asks if it’s upside down. He complains about punk but knows it makes him sound old.
• This week in porn marquee titles: Famed sexploitation director Joseph W. Sarno’s Confessions of a Young American Housewife, starring Jennifer Welles.
• Poor Harvey. He just wants some real food, but is lovingly forced by his wife to eat a baked potato so he doesn’t put the weight back on. “Never get married,” he muses to Vincent.
• After Vincent chastises Bobby for his lax work standards, he asks, “The fuck did I do?” a clear nod to Jimmy McNulty’s famous catchphrase on The Wire.
• “I readily agree that what you have laboriously cut together over the last two days approximates, in some ethereal Warholian fashion, the mental state of some fuck slut cumming happily with the neighbor, and the apartment superintendent. Congratulations.”