This The Deuce review contains spoilers
The Deuce Season 2 Episode 1
While David Simon and George Pelecanos’s previous television efforts have been some of the most important work ever committed to the medium, they weren’t necessarily happy, rip-roaring good times. The Wire charted the degradation of America through one crumbling city and all its failing institutions. Sure, the characters were charming, lived-in creatures and it was pleasant to get to know them but the scythe of capitalistic doom that hung over them made The Wire a dour, sometimes difficult watch.
Simon’s next effort, Tremé, was somehow even bleaker. Despite taking place in the most vibrant ward of one of the country’s most vibrant cities, Tremé presented the realities of a post-Katrina New Orleans in an almost too admirably brutal fashion. It’s possible that Tremé carried a level of darkness and melancholy that even its creators weren’t anticipating.
In its first season, The Deuce, seemed like it would follow in the skeptical footsteps of its Simonian forefathers. The world of 42nd street in the The Deuce’s mid ‘70s was unapologetically gross. The Deucedelighted in pointing out every stain, every blemish, every cigarette burn in Midtown Manhattan’s blighted streets. Pimps, prostitutes, and hapless Johns roamed the city streets, the pimp’s ill-cared for garish outfits underling the rot at the core of the business model. Bars, delis, coffee shops, and even some police stations were hopelessly mobbed up. Like in The Wire’s Baltimore, corruption and decay could be found in every corner ofThe Deuce’s…deuce.
But for all the ugliness and all the degradation, somehow this show was…fun? The Deuce is still very much a David Simon drama – long, understated, and ultimately revelatory. At times, however, The Deuce feels like a much longer, far more vulgar episode of Cheers. Television, and HBO in particular, has increasingly become a place where viewers turn for complexity. Despite that encroaching appetite for ambiguity and meaning though, television has always been, and always will be, home to a good old-fashioned hangout comedy. The Deuce, improbably, is Simon and Pelecanos’ version of Cheers. This rotten city is the bar where everyone knows David Simon’s name…and god damn it; I want them to know my name too.
“Our Raison d’être” is a beyond brilliant, nearly perfect reintroduction to this weird world of vice and a grand opening to The Deuce Season 2. This is an episode of television where nearly everything goes right, nearly everyone remains fulfilled and happy, yet the city around them remains ugly and imperfect. The dead victim of a violent stabbing shows up midway through the episode and still this is somehow one of the most joyous and lovely episodes of a David Simon show ever.
The cold open sets the scene perfectly. The subtitle informs the viewer that we are now in 1977, but that proves to have been a completely unnecessary marker as Candy’s lush fur coat makes it damn clear what year we’re in…or at least what mood of a year we’re in. Eileen “Candy” Merrell (Maggie Gyllenhaal) enters a new club as Barry White’s “Let the Music Play” blares. Everyone gazes at her admirably as she enters – this once respected streetwalker now an even more respected adult film producer. She sees old “coworker,” Lori (Emily Meade) and her pimp, CC (Gary Carr) at the bar. They smile at her. Ne’er-do-well Frankie (James Franco) greets her happily. His brother behind the bar, Vincent (also Franco) calls her a celebrity.
And then…that’s it. The opening credits roll (now scored to “This Year’s Girl” from Elvis Costello). The Deuce Season 2’s cold open seemingly exists for no other reason than to launch us back into a time and place and holy shit it works. It certainly helps that both that time and place is hopelessly, heart wrenchingly stylish and cool. As a dreaded millennial, the world that The Deuce immediately brings its audience back to seems more otherworldly than Martian style and culture. Still, I can’t help but be enraptured even as some of the ugliness is paraded around. This opening scene, just like the rest of the show around it, features at least one pimp and his prostitute. I understand that this relationship is far more complex than sheer sexual slavery…but it’s closer to sexual slavery than I’m sure any of us would prefer – which is to say at all.
Simon and Pelecanos’ cameras are just too loving…to honest to make this world seem anything other than appealing through – even through the fog of carcinogenic smoke. There’s a half-serious suggestion rolling around the internet that HBO’s Westworld should introduce a Game of Thrones Westeros theme park during one of its seasons but based on the styles of New York here, perhaps a theme park set in 1977’s the deuce would be more appealing.
Following the cold open, “Our Raison d’être” adopts an uncommonly straightforward storytelling technique that helps make the episode a series of perfect reintroductions. Frankie, we regret to inform you all, is once again back on his bullshit. This time that means stealing over $10,000 in quarters from one of his brother’s mobbed up nude show booth buildings. The Knicks aren’t doing too hot, you see, and Frankie just can’t help but betting on the lovable losers. This sets his more responsible brother on a path through New York’s heart of darkness to find him.
Vincent’s Frankie hunt takes from the scene of the crime to the old bar, Hi-Hat, that Vince’s girlfriend Abby (Margarita Levieva) now runs. She’s eliminated the strict female dress code. The search then moves to the cathouse that brother-in-law Bobby. Wire alum Chris Bauer gives his absolute best Jimmy McNultian “the fuck did I do” faces when confronted with Vince’s annoyance that he’s partaking in the talent again. Vince even visits the gay bar run by old Hi-Hat friend, Paul. None of our old friends have seen Frankie. In fact, it’s not until Vince visits Candy and Harvey’s (played by a much slimmed down David Krumholtz) that he receives a compelling lead – Frankie has taken up with a blonde named Christina.
None of this is really about finding Frankie. Well, it is for Vincent but certainly not for the show. Instead, Vincent’s journey through all of The Deuce’s hotspots is a wonderful mechanism for the show to catch up with all of Season 1’s character in their respective new environs. It’s also so incredibly fun. Vincent’s lighthearted trip through New York’s would-be Heart of Darkness carries with it all of the beautifully anti-climactic style for style’s sake that the cold open does.
The search also pulls the episode’s greatest narrative and thematic magic trip by far. While Vincent’s search for Frankie is undeniably fun, partway through the episode it receives a small undercurrent of menace. The mob pays a visit to the booth and tells its horrified owner that they know the count is off. Then when Vincent meets with mob boss Rudy Piplio, he tells Vincent that there’s something he wants to show him. The mind can’t help but race here – are they going to kill Frankie in the very first episode of this season? Was Franco sick of playing two characters and The Deuce concocted this scheme to have as explosive and surprising a first episode as possible? $10,000 is, after all, a lot of money. According to inflation calculators, that would be around $43,000 in today’s buying power.
As it turns out…no. The mob just wants to show Vincent the ingenious tipping scheme that the dancers came up with. Everything’s fine. Everyone’s happy – just as the cold open promised. By episode’s end, Frankie turns up at Vincent’s bar, drunk and exceedingly pleased with himself. Not only has me carried porn star Christina, he dropped most of that “borrowed” $10,000 on a garish diamond ring for her. Vincent smiles at his brother, pours him a drink and tells him everything is ok. The ring can be a gift from him to the happy couple.
That’s the world these characters live in now. It’s always been a world of sex, vice, money, and mayhem. Now it’s a world where ~$10,000 can disappear and nobody cares.
“Our Raison d’être” is positive filled with these moments of satisfying anticlimax. When we catch back up with Lawrence Gilliard Jr.’s Detective Chris Alston again, he is a more comfortable, self-assured man than we who met in season 1. He has a greater position of power within the department, and a nurse girlfriend who he’s happy to pick up from work. As consumers of David Simon material, we are conditioned to wait for the “but”…and it never comes. Yes, he comes across a violently murdered tourist but that’s just par for the course for his job. It might signify a slight uptick in violence to come soon. For now, however, the far more annoying prospect is merely having to interact with someone from Mayor Ed Koch’s office.
There is a subtle undercurrent of melancholy in Lori’s life. She’s annoyed with CC’s moneymaking schemes on the porn set but still seems to appreciate the slightly new level of autonomy and power that being a pornographic actress brings her. And again: there’s money! Everyone is getting paid.
Candy certainly is. She’s a valued member of Harvey’s team now. She’s an actress, a producer, and even an editor. Early on in the episode, she presents Harvey with a new piece she’s been working on. An otherwise pornographic film is interrupted with cuts of mountain lions running and oranges being squeezed. It’s Candy’s art – a Warholian meditation on the road to a female orgasm.
“Congratulations on allowing us to climb into the female mind for the final stampede into nirvana,” Harvey says. “But what the people watching this movie, or should I say the men jerking off to this movie, don’t want to be in a woman’s head. The want to see a couple of dicks that might be their own filling up a woman.”
“Porn,” Candy replies
“Our Raison d’Être.”
This is a profoundly confident and strong debut for The Deuce Season 2 because it understands the show’s raison d’étre to perfection. More than ever The Deuce makes the lurid streets of 1970s Manhattan feel real – terrifying, alluringly real. It’s eye candy. It’s porn, in a way – brightly colored, quick-paced, and matter-of-fact. It’s the audiences job to find the meaning, and likely even the ugliness beneath it.
The closest “Our Raison d’Être” ever comes to clearing its throat and announcing, “something is wrong here” is in its inscrutable final scene. Vincent finally returns home from a long day to his bed with Abby. The two make love in a fashion so earnest we’re not used to seeing on The Deuce. Meanwhile, Candy is back in the edit bay, slaving away at recutting her movie to remove any non-prurient elements from it, turning something that could an artistic shout from a downtrodden woman into mere porn. Vince and Abby finish. Then Candy finishes. Miles away from each other, Vince and Candy both reach for cigarettes to quell the whimpering dopamine receptors in their brain.
What’s the show communicating? What is this art? What are these mountain lions and oranges that are interrupting Candy and Vincent and Abby? I don’t know. I’m too blinded by the pretty pictures and happy endings. I can’t hear the shouting because the porn is so damn good and loud.