Written by Richard Price, “There’s an Art to This” is a little more scattershot and untethered than The Deuce’s second season premiere. It’s an issue that naturally arises when a series has a geographically dispersed ensemble with multiple different storylines that are thematically connected but don’t always literally intersect. Thus, “There’s an Art to This” feels more like a series of vignettes that also perform set-up work for the rest of the season. What the episode lacks in structure, however, it makes up for in the potency of individual scenes. “There’s an Art to This” features The Deuce at its sweetest and most direct, which isn’t a familiar mode for Simon/Pelecanos but works wonders here.
By late 1977/early 1978, The Deuce’s characters have settled into their new routines, yet many of them still chafe against the strictures of the old order. In the episode, Price focuses on a piece of the ensemble, mostly women, aching to break free from their various masters, whether that be a man pulling the strings or society itself. The Deuce always reminds you that not only does “freedom” have a cost, but also it’s never available to everyone.
For Lori, her success in pornography only underscores the deadweight strength of the albatross around her neck: C.C. After she’s nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the AFFA Erotica Awards, she realizes that real actresses have people in their corner other than pimps. A fellow actress sets up a meeting for her with Kiki Rains (Alysia Reiner), a woman looking out for the interests (and safety) of her female clientele. She has learned her trade from the West Coast and wants to take Lori under her wing, but the C.C. of it all makes it difficult.
On top of that, she’s competing with a new generation of aspiring adult film actresses who never had to travel down the sex worker route. In the first scene of “There’s an Art to This,” Larry runs his pimp playbook on a college girl just off the bus in New York, but what might have worked a decade before has no currency now. The college girl in question is savvy and headstrong, and only needed Larry’s help with directions. She doesn’t need a man controlling her life and finances. Lori sees that same girl easily enter an industry in which she had to stumble in sideways. On top of all that, she still has C.C. pissing in her ear about antiquated notions of respect and control that have no place in a semi-professional film set environment.
Meanwhile, Candy chafes against the creatively unsatisfying aspects of her job. She wants to elevate Harvey’s lame material, but without more money and a more professional crew, she’s stuck making films that don’t last a week in the theaters. Though she commands some professional respect on set, Candy remains frustrated that she’s stuck in neutral, hobbled by lame scripts borne out of fantasy templates that only appeal to the lowest of the masculine common denominator. She eventually gets lunch with Genevieve Fury (Dagmara Dominczyk), a former porn director who’s graduated to B-grade slasher films, who doesn’t mince words about Candy’s ability. Fury tells her she needs to get control of her cameraman, hire a better crew and real actors, and to stop using whores in her films (“They’re dead around the eyes,” she says).
But before she can do that, she needs a script with real juice that relies on established structure and characterization. The Golden Age of Porn produced many popular titles that were either homages to or parodies of classic literature: Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland), The Opening of Misty Beethoven (My Fair Lady, or, more accurately, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion), and The Devil in Miss Jones (Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, but Harvey thinks that’s a stretch.) When Candy hits a wall, her assistant editor suggests looking to fairy tales, because they’re basically all sexual anyway. That’s how she lands on Little Red Riding Hood, which has the built-in premise of a “big bad wolf” chasing down an innocent, virginal girl. It’s a story ready made for porn.
Finally, there’s Abby, who struggles under the confines of “good girlfriend” and “pleasant bar owner who constantly looks the other away.” She’s in a stable, healthy relationship with Vincent, who takes her on a genuinely sweet, nostalgic date to Coney Island, where she sees the setting of his Americana adolescence. She’s good at her job, placating bar regulars with liquor and kindness, many of whom are obnoxious at best and abusive pimps at worst. But she has her claws in second-wave feminism and progressive activist circles, many of which are trying to reclaim agency and wages for sex workers. It’s telling that Vincent, despite being understanding to a fault, is still on the outside looking in with many of Abby’s activities. One day, it’s a baby shower featuring drunken women harmlessly venting about the men in their lives. The next day, it’s a street worker activist group in the basement of church, run by Ashley (Jaime Neumann), formerly one of C.C.’s girls who took a check from Abby and escaped the life at the end of the first season. Things are changing fast, and even those who are trying to keep up may eventually be left behind.
On the margins, this week, are the men, many of whom are fulfilling professional obligations with various degrees of success. Alston discovers the culprit of his tourist stabbing, who turns out to be a very young, very small kid whom he subtly advises to claim that he acted out of a self-defense when he was cornered by a man twice his size, which may or may not be the full truth. Ed Koch’s new aide Gene Goldman returns to keep tabs on him, even though Alston still ain’t buying what he’s selling. He’s seen too many politicians who make big promises that go nowhere but still end up filling the pockets of the men at the top. Goldman reminds him that housing developments are underway regardless: “Do you know what are the two greatest crime fighters we have in this city? Sheetrock and cranes.”
Finally, there’s Paul, who still has trouble finding a location for his new club and unfortunately learns that he still needs mob protection. After a regular of his gets assaulted outside of his bar by a group of homophobes, rival mobster The Horse (Gary Pastore) pays him a visit to offer his services. Though frightened, he eventually returns to Vincent to ask for Rudy’s renewed help. Vincent advises him to go speak to Tommy Longo himself because, after all, Paul is paying him, too. Paul desperately wants to be clean and not to have to make ugly deals just to have peace of mind. Sadly, that’s not the world he lives in.
Paul’s story serves as a neat microcosm for the problems Lori, Candy, and Abby face. Every one of them technically has protection, but not the kind they deserve. They’re all still looking for “their man,” someone who really has them in their hearts and not just in their back pockets.
Other Tricks and Pricks
• When he’s not trying to sneak fries under the nose of his wife, Harvey exercises his cinephile knowledge to Candy, much to her chagrin. He’s the real deal, given the film posters he has on his wall: Jules and Jim, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and my personal favorite, High and Low.
• Meanwhile, Frankie installs the windowless stall in his nudie booth, which causes one woman to quit in protest and another woman to suffer a minor scrape when a john with uncut nails cops a feel on her breast. In retaliation, she closes the peep window on his arm.
• Frankie gives the girls ground rules about johns touching them, most importantly not to let them touch you anywhere that they don’t guide him first. One girl asks, nervously, “You mean … internally?”
• Vincent and the pimps commiserate outside the Hi-Hat while the baby shower goes on indoors. They fear they’re conspiring against them. C.C. crassly remarks, “Scratch a bitch, uncover a conspiracy.”