tv review

The Deuce Shows Its True Self in Its Final Season

Photo: HBO

The Deuce, David Simon and George Pelecanos’s drama about Times Square, the sex trade, and capitalism, seems to be fast-forwarding through history to get to the parts that interest them most: Season one was set in 1971, season two jumped ahead to 1977, and the new third and final season starts in the ramp-up to New Year’s Eve 1984. It’s an appropriate strategy for a series that was destined to hit the VHS era eventually, and with the opening credits of season three, bam, here we are. The cutting between images of sex, real estate, and police violence is faster, verging on early MTV; the picture is fuzzier, with moth-size chunks of grain swarming an otherwise clear picture; and the characters who have immersed themselves in a particular type of filmmaking — pornographic, erotic, exploitative — are simultaneously elated and unnerved by the future that has already surrounded them.

Late in season two, there was a scene where sex worker turned porn actress turned filmmaker Eileen “Candy” Merrell (Maggie Gyllenhaal) listened as her mentor Harvey Wasserman (David Krumholtz) previewed newfangled VHS technology. His voice rose at the prospect of the fortunes they’d make once consumers could rent or buy porn spooled on magnetic tape in a plastic case the size of a hardcover book and get off in the comfort and privacy of their homes, rather than be forced to join what he’d earlier described to Eileen as “the raincoat crowd.” A sequence in season three finds them at the adult-entertainment section of an electronics convention, where it becomes clear that it isn’t just the convenience of tape that appeals to consumers — there’s something about the cheapness and grittiness of home video that has transformed both aesthetics and consumer expectations.

Nobody visits Candy’s booth, where she seems to have expected to hold court like Godard at Cannes; the buzz is all about “amateur” porn, of the type that mob-connected hustler Frankie Martino (James Franco) shoots with a VHS camcorder, when he’s not illegally dubbing other filmmakers’ work and selling copies to one of the tape-oriented stores that have proliferated in Times Square. (Frankie, by the way, is shooting faux-amateur porn with professionals who in another time might have become stars in their circumscribed world; one of them wears a cheap wig to pass for a nobody.) Harvey loves and respects Eileen, but at a certain point he has to wonder if it even makes sense to shoot porn on film, with stories and dialogue and characters and the like, and exhibit the result in theaters. Why not skip the foreplay — i.e., theatrical exhibition — and get down to business?

All this stuff was mentioned in Boogie Nights, but in passing, as a sort of parenthetical lament folded into writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s affection for celluloid and 1970s ideas of cinematic authenticity. (“Cut on film,” promised an end credit, as if anyone could tell.) But it’s still fascinating to see it all explored over a longer time span, with a journalist’s sense of detail, and a novelist’s willingness to connect the detail with contemporaneous developments outside of porn, gangsterism, and civic corruption. The world feels somehow bigger, more spread out and anonymous and intimidating, and not just because season three spends more time in Los Angeles.

You get the sense that ominous, faceless, unstoppable forces are bearing down on all of the characters. The Times Square Task Force unveiled at the end of season one — masterminded by closeted gay Koch administration aide Gene Goldman (Luke Kirby), and abetted by good cop Chris Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) — is ultimately doing the bidding of developers who are playing the long game, banking on the transformation of Times Square from a glitzy wonderland of crime and sin into a more vertical version of a boring suburban strip mall with hotels attached. The newly finished Marriott Marquis, topped by a tourist-friendly revolving restaurant, is treated as if it were the tower bearing the Eye of Sauron; the camera tilts up to take in its full height, the viewpoint of peasants regarding the castle containing their masters. Many major characters have died since season one, including a couple of pimps, Method Man’s Rodney and Gary Carr’s C.C., killed suddenly and violently as a by-product of greed and desperation; and a former sex worker turned organizer and activist (Jamie Neumann’s Ashley, a.k.a. Dorothy) who was found murdered in the season-two finale, her corpse decomposed to unrecognizability, riddled with maggots the size of fishing worms. Ashley’s murder, which was never explained, much less pinned on one person, now seems of a piece with the extinction of the pimps, all of them players in a Times Square sex trade revised out of existence by economic progress. When there are no more streetwalkers, no more brothels, no more drugs, no more public vice of any kind in Times Square, what replaces them? Starbucks and Applebee’s and the Disney Store, mainly. And now we’re verging on the end of Martin Scorsese’s Casino, where a gangster waxes nostalgic about how the Mafia used to run things until even bigger, badder gangsters, the corporations, came in and took over.

Which leads to the question of what The Deuce is ultimately up to. In season one, it often felt a bit like a merger of two other Simon productions, The Wire and Treme, Robert Altman–esque ensembles where the disparate characters and subplots were tied together though vice and the prosecution thereof (The Wire) and/or economic struggle and the desire to make art from life (Treme). All of the stories were subsumed within larger observations about capitalism’s fathomless appetite for profit — or, barring that, for change, and the dark thrill emanating from that noxious term beloved by venture capitalists: “disruption.” The thrill of watching old ways of life destroyed can be, for certain people, nearly as thrilling as actual success, and there’s a touch of that here, particularly in the erudite blather of Harvey, who can regale Eileen with loving film-buff anecdotes and then get a buzz from talking about how much money home video and amateurism are going to make for them.

But the time jumps on The Deuce suggest that the show has a grander endgame in mind: a portrait of the endless churn of American (or even global) economic history that happens to have Times Square as its focal point. Now that we’re starting to understand the breadth of the canvas, the show feels more like John Dos Passos’s sprawling “USA trilogy” of novels (a key inspiration on Mad Men) than anything Simon, Pelecanos, and their regular collaborators (including executive producer Nina Kostroff-Noble) have made previously. Contextualizing observations about history, politics, and culture merge (sometimes in a too homework-y way) with down-and-dirty accounts of the characters trying to survive from one day to the next.

As is always the case in a Simon production, the absolute dedication to democratic storytelling results in certain moments and subplots feeling rushed and others unduly emphasized. The mob violence, in particular, is consistently less interesting than everything else, and can sometimes feel like a too obvious attempt to lure the male-dominated crime-genre audience. And the recent revelations of co-star and sometime-director James Franco’s offscreen sleaziness, particularly while directing sex scenes, makes one even less inclined to give a pass to his “dese, dem, dose” performances as twin brothers.

But the totality of the achievement is often breathtaking, more so when you think about season three in relation to what The Deuce has shown us before. Times Square is treated as an actual place, its incremental changes scrupulously reenacted through vintage cars, costumes, signage, and splashes of subtle computer-generated imagery. But Times Square is also a stage upon which The Deuce’s writers and directors (a gender-balanced group, incidentally) can mount a play of ideas, centered on economic creation and destruction aided by government, and largely avoiding charges of grandiosity or pretension through gallows humor. It’s a great show about work, about the place of the individual within history, and most of all, about the faceless indomitability of money over human affairs.

The Deuce Shows Its True Self in Its Final Season