The Deuce Episode 3 Review: The Principle is All

Abby finds her place in the world and all that James Franco goodness might serve a purpose, as everyone goes to Vince's.

This The Deuce review contains spoilers.

The Deuce Episode 3

The marvel of Times Square is that it really is at the heart of all things in New York. Whether it’s the decadent urban decay of 1971 or the glossy sheen of corporate America in 2017, it represents the core ideal of its era. And as sure as that of that old George M. Cohan statue on 47th street—a faded tribute to the man who wrote “Give My Regards to Broadway”—the center of New York is where all the energy flows. Be it the creative arts trying to pass along their own regards to ol’ Broadway, or simply the steerage in the subway trains that are forced to muddy through the MTA’s centralized hub.

The Deuce is hypnotized by the appeal of that lost seeded glory when sleaze coated the sidewalks next to Cohan, yet the has also now created its own narrative Times Square (of sorts) in “The Principle is All.” And it’s not a moment too soon.

Rather than a public square filled with gigantic electric balls, this gathering place of community is filled with smoke in the back and cocaine lines on the seats; there are pimps showing off their wares in the corner while “their” women make the rounds; it’s the kind of low light and lowlife location where a stiffed contractor might pull out a gun and try to put a hole in the bartender’s head. It’s the Hi-Hat, and on The Deuce, it’s a James Franco-owned bar that’s the closest the series has to a “home.” Which is a relief on this crazy show.

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The Deuce is currently divided into two sections: the scenes revolving around the “nightlife” of 42nd Street, as well as the men and women whose livelihoods depend on it, and also the small business woes of the brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino. But right now, the former is a whole hell of a lot stronger than the latter. This emerging understanding is especially low-key problematic for “The Principle is All” since most of tonight’s episode revolved around A Tale of Two Francos trying to get the bar off the ground. Now that it is flying, hopefully it will be the Cheers spot for pimps and prostitutes who will make or break The Deuce, as opposed to its own separate narrative thread. Because as a storytelling island tonight, it was a mostly barren one.

Indeed, the great majority of the episode dealt with the personal troubles in the Martino Family as the Hi-Hat came into existence. Deciding he no longer wants it to be exclusively a gay bar, Vinnie has retrofitted the watering hole into the kind of dive that made his Korean restaurant such a hit in the pilot—right down to taking most of the waitress staff with him.

But these scenes lead to trouble in paradise since the money that sketchy Frankie sketchily steals from the abandoned jukebox and pool table belongs to an even sketchier teamster. When this Big Red comes around demanding the money he’s made from his machines and a percentage of the bar’s take—which he had apparently set-up with the previous proprietor—Frankie flies off the handle and breaks all of the machines and shatters a giant hole in the pool table.

This of course creates a small, tense situation with Big Red’s Irish mob connections needing to chat with Vincent’s Italian mob connections and smooth everything over like so much sanding on a billiard board’s finishing. But, truthfully speaking, it wasn’t exactly riveting television.

In the pilot, I personally enjoyed Franco playing two different variations on his seeming professional persona. As Vincent, he appeared to be a hard-on-his-luck decent blue collar guy and solid leading man hero. Frankie, meanwhile, was his more gregarious and playfully odd character actor shadow, hamming it up like it’s Spider-Man 3. But as Vincent and Frank spend more time together, the two personas are starting to blur instead of differentiate. In fact, during the fixer-upper sequences in the bar, it is almost impossible to tell them apart in terms of performance once Frankie stops wearing the sharp suits and hats.

And with the past two episodes having done such a strong job of developing the dynamics between pimps and prostitution—and why the porn industry could possibly become a revolutionary form of unionization and escape for the ladies of the night—spending too much time on these Brooklynite goofballs is all a bit flat. Their brother-in-law Bobby has a heart attack and ends up in the hospital, and now both Martinos are worried about their sister’s young family. There is even a bit about not wanting Frankie to run up gambling debts in the new spot… but when the point of the series is the birth of a lucrative media empire, it all seems like small potatoes.

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The initial appeal of these two brothers is that they’re a kind of reversal of The Sopranos, Goodfellas, and so many mafia fantasies; they’re the two schmucks who are getting leaned on by other crime stories’ anti-hero protagonists. But so far, the series hasn’t genuinely leaned into that element as well as it could. Nor is it clear why the mob is cool with Frankie hanging around their investment into Vincent after Frankie failed to pay them their gambling debuts. Between this and the pimp and prostitute industry, and even Mafioso Rudy Pipilo making plans to turn the Hell’s Kitchen section of 42nd Street into his private domain (it’s unclear whether it’ll be sleazier or cleaner than the current Deuce)—the Martinos are the least interesting aspect of a television series that they’re currently headlining.

That might improve in future weeks, however. With the Hi-Hat open, it could be the veritable Rick’s Café for the 1970s sex industry. Hell, I wouldn’t be shocked if Eileen shoots her first porno on the counter by the season finale. Instead of being on a separate TV show, the Martinos could be the ones to make the magic happen. The linchpin location that allows the whores to sing “La Marseillaise” while the pimps try a few bars of “Horst-Wessel-Lied.” And Frankie can be raking cash in the back, all the while, and Vincent continues to refuse to stick his neck out for no man (or woman).

But that will have to be for the coming weeks. In the meantime, it’s just good to see everyone there, and the plot threads starting to merge together.

One of the more curious knots being thus formed tonight was the thread involving Darlene and Larry. In the earlier episodes, Darlene is rightfully anxious that Larry might fly off the handle if she’s running too late from her most recent john. And in fact that happened tonight, as she fell asleep while watching another classic with her saddest, yet doting client.

When she shows up well past dawn with Larry’s money, Darlene reveals that she didn’t ask for extra last night (she could’ve just taken it as she had access to his wallet). She also infers, once more, that she is too nice a person to be mixed up in this kind of lifestyle. Larry might even agree. Hence why when she’s prepared to take her slap, and we as the audience brace for it, Larry instead turns the other cheek. Forcing her to pick up his sunglasses, and exerting his authority over her, the pimp chooses to let the moment pass by and even takes her on something akin to a date at the grand opening of the Hi-Hat.

It’s intriguing since Larry is all high-strung intensity but has yet to get physical with his women while C.C. is all smooth words and shiny suits, but he cut his “bottom bitch” at the first inconvenience. Perhaps they’re on different trajectories? What if C.C. is the “old capitalist” type of industry provider who won’t change with the times, and will become Hell on Earth for Eileen, Lori, and anyone else who chooses to do porn instead of hooking? And then Larry is the “progressive” visionary that sees the opportunity in changing industries, or at least expanding markets?

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Maybe. Another reading is that Larry is actually smitten with Darlene. He seems to genuinely enjoy her company in a way that C.C. only claims to do with Lori. And anything that could take Darlene away from him is troubling—including that college girl trying to talk to Darlene about books and shit. Look, we can all enjoy watching MGM’s Tale of Two Cities, but READING Charles Dickens? What’s next, Karl Marx?!

The other prostitution subplots reinforced how vile the lifestyle is. Lori got dropped the title of the episode, “The Principle is All,” while seeing yet again that there is no principle on the streets. As mob money is causing cops to stop policing incidents between 41st and 43rd, Lori is getting a mouthful of misogyny on a ride through the Lincoln Tunnel. Despite getting a hummer while almost humming his way into the Great Beyond by not looking at the road, the john is pissed that Lori got out as soon as they reached her corner. He mutters “bitch” as she walks away, even though he is the one with the happy ending.

Lori must then also get a lecture from C.C. about how she needs consistent johns who invite her into their apartments each week, as opposed to those Jersey slimes who come to the Deuce for a quick pick-me-up. It ain’t much of a living. Just ask Eileen.

Always getting a wary gaze from her mother while looking at her son across the booth as if he’s a stranger, Eileen’s is a grim family life that even a slice of John’s Pizza (which is delicious) won’t fix. Nor will it help while all her regular clients call and cancel, making finances even tougher. Or how that one douchebag thinks hookers (or really any women) like anal.

Honestly, it is almost repetitive to point out how much the girl called Candy hates her life. Luckily, there is one major change: She meets Harvey Wasserman (an always welcome David Krumholtz). A heavyset and sleazy porn director who doesn’t actually film the porn, he now makes his money by allowing some sad sacks to watch him pretend to film pornography while they jerk off. It’s a brilliant business move in the short-term but it’s also shortsighted.

Given that pornography, at least with hardcore penetration, is illegal in 1971 America, Harvey sees no money in the long-term with producing smut for the screen. But Eileen sees it as her ticket off a street corner. She is given a low blow by Harvey who refuses to see her as a moviemaking partner, and only wishes to hire her for some before-the-camera canoodling, but Candy is obviously not going to stop until she is strictly off-screen. I can’t yet wager whether Harvey will be a friend or foe to her in that goal, but they didn’t hire an actor of Krumholtz’s stature just to be the skeevy guy in a one-off episode. Nay, he’ll play a prominent role in Eileen’s rise.

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But if she has to, she’ll walk right past him like that poor bastard who got a knife to the stomach on the Deuce. Presumably, this is the kind of crime that even the police shouldn’t ignore. But like all New Yorkers, they probably will.

Still, if it felt like other than the inclusion of Harvey that the pornography storyline treaded water—and the Martino plots were drowning in Franco swagger—then David Simon and the writers at last finally got a good handle on Abby tonight. Something of a prototype millennial, Abby’s purpose in the series and her own personality came into clarity with a lamentable sigh.

Obviously dissatisfied with something, be it herself or the banality of existence, it’s now more evident that she didn’t flunk out of NYU, but rather let her collegiate life collapse in on itself, just as she grew bored and disinterested with working in a smoke filled misogyny factory, or then as a telemarketer in a glorified sweat shop. The thing is, however, as a college dropout what would she be qualified for? Realistically, given the poise and inherent glamour of Margarita Levieva, it is hard to imagine that the only work she could come by would be as a waitress in a dive bar. But that’s the story, and at least it makes sense in so far as she has the Vince connection.

Living in a cockroach infested den and still not able to scrounge together $10 for rent (it doesn’t help when you’re robbed in the middle of the night), the exploitative attire of the Hi-Hat isn’t all that shocking. And as an at least partially college-educated vixen in the midst of wolves, Abby is like red meat to all on the prowl. This includes Vincent, who wants to buy her breakfast, and C.C. who drops his smarmy charm and cynicism. She even offers Darlene some reading recommendations that turns yet more unwanted attention from Larry.

As the potential star of the Hi-Hat, it is not hard to imagine the pimps or even Eileen down the road offering plenty of more lucrative opportunities to Abby as she finds her way in the world. Albeit, someone as smart as her, and even if she’s in constant search for something else, should probably keep searching beyond these grounds.

Until then, however, it is starting to become clear that the porn industry might just come into its own at the Hi-Hat. Assuming the show does too. For as a whole, the third episode was solid, intriguing television of the keenest insight. But for an only eight-episode season, the hour also felt strangely redundant and often repeating narrative beats already crossed several times in the last two episodes. While The Deuce’s first season is still young, we will hopefully see it start to feel itself like a well-dressed goon at a dive bar that’s shady even by Gotham City standards. Because if this is an origin story, it’s become time for the real story to begin.

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3 out of 5