This The Deuce review contains spoilers.
The Deuce Season 2 Episode 2
God bless a show that knows what to do with a cold open – particularly a drama. The cold open is one of the least appreciated tools in the television canon. Comedies like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Office before that do a solid job of using the the moments before the opening credits to challenge themselves to concoct a fully-realized mini show within the show.
Dramas, lumbering hour-long beasts that they are, have more time to experiment with yet so rarely use that time at the beginning to their advantage. Since the cold open is divorced from the rest of its respective episode by the intrusion of the opening credits, it can serve as commentary on what’s to come. When used to the best of their potential, a cold open can be a entertainingly-realized thesis statement.
The Deuce thankfully knows just what to do with a cold open of this type. “There’s an Art to This” opens in a scene reminiscent of the series opener. Pimps are gathered at Penn Station, waiting for the newest crop of small town girls following their New York dreams to arrive. Only this time it isn’t pimps, plural, but just lonely Larry Brown. Still, Larry remains on his game when he sees an attractive young woman emerge from the bus.
He approaches the woman, named Brenda Peterson, and wows her by knowing all the relevant details of her life and her situation. She dropped out of college and came to New York because she wanted a “real” education. She wants to be an actress. Larry can “see it all in (her) eyes. It’s as clear as day.”
Brenda is taken with Larry and it seems as though his charm offensive is working. Then she asks him for directions to a porn shoot. She has no interest in being a prostitute, working for some man in a garish outfit. She has opportunities in the big city that involve a little more autonomy now.
“You know they’re gonna exploit you, right?” Larry yells as Brenda cheerily skips to her new destination.
The Deuce is fundamentally about change. Season 1 tracked slow cultural and demographic changes in New York City that led to the creation of a burgeoning porn industry on the East Coast. Through one episode in season 2 we’ve seen even more change than an entire season that precedes it. People are starting to look differently, talk differently, dress differently, and think differently. What the cold open of “There’s an Art to This” posits and what the rest of the episode then proves is that change is never without consequences.
First the good news! The women of The Deuce continue to do rather well for themselves in this brave new world of porn. Lori is so in demand that she is double-booking appointments at various porn studios around town, maximizing her workload and earning potential. Not only that, but Lori is actually starting to get recognition from this burgeoning industry. Lori receives an Erotic Film Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress and is delighted. Harvey is annoyed at the set’s emotional outburst before discovering that he’s been nominated for Best Director. Who doesn’t love an award?
Darlene is also doing rather well, albeit not as noticeably so. Darlene, undoubtedly a season one standout, has not had much yet to do in this season and perhaps that’s for the best. It’s not that she isn’t a compelling character, because she is. It’s more that it’s always comforting to see her at the Hi-Hat or at porn shoots, happily receding into the background, nose deep into a book.
Things are starting to go so well for the women of The Deuce that the show’s first post cold open scene introduces us to a whole host of dancers just to point out how much more money they’re going to make now that Frankie and the mob’s tipping window is being introduced. Like everything on The Deuce, this is introduced as a mixed blessing as it means that these unnamed women must now tolerate a new level of handsy clientele. One dancer quits on site when the concept of the tipping window is introduced. The rest have varying levels of enthusiasm. Later on, one dancer traps some asshole’s arm in the window after he scratches her breast.
The Deuce never loses side of the fact that the world it’s presenting is a cold, dispassionate meat market. People (almost exclusively women) are objectified, packaged, and sometimes sold. This is a difficult concept to introduce into a television show, even as one as concerned with authenticity as The Deuce is. Somehow The Deuce makes it work to the point that the audience feels a certain twinge of excitement and pride when these girls start making more money and taking on more responsibility. It’s still a meat market, but at least it’s paying well.
Conversely, as the times change and the women of The Deuce eke out new levels of independence, the men find themselves losing a bit of power. It was never all that great to be a man in the universe of David Simon and George Pelecanos’s ‘70s New York because it was never all that great to be anyone really. But the human mind and the human body have this spooky way of growing completely and utterly enthralled to the status quo, and then panicking when the status quo changes.
It’s clear that Vincent is very much in love with Abby and she loves him back. But all the things that Vincent loves about her are the same things that make it hard to “keep” her. She’s intelligent, independent, and just magnetic to be around. Despite Vincent being a generally decent person, he’s still a product of his time and place and loving a woman means possessing her in some way or another. That’s why Vincent is so threatened when Abby meets a fellow art lover like herself. So he does the only thing that he can think to do: he demands all of her time.
It’s not necessarily overbearing or creepy for Vincent to do so as he does take Abby on a rather sweet date to Coney Island. The two pace the boardwalks of Vince and Frankie’s childhood, tell each other stories, and dominate a game of skee-ball together. The night concludes at Vincent’s old house where the two laugh at old pictures and make love. It’s a perfect, Notebook-levels of romantic date.
But it’s just one date and it can’t last forever. The following week, Vincent arranges for Abby’s shift to be covered at the Hi-Hat once again so that they can do get dinner but Abby receives a phone call and says she can’t go. Vincent probably assumes that the phone call is from the beatnik wannabe before. In reality, however, Abby is meeting with Ashely, once a streetwalker on the deuce – now a prominent Street Outreach activist.
Vincent can’t lose Abby to another man because he never really “had” her in the first place. She’s her own woman and that lesson is still hard for the denizens of The Deuce to grasp.
While Vincent is losing some of the perceived power in his relationship, the pimps are losing some real economic and cultural power on the streets. Larry’s particularly cold cold open is just a harbinger of things to come. Things are going so poorly that Larry decides to visit Candy on her film set and ask to be an actor in her next movie.
Can Larry even act, Candy asks.
“I am who I need to be to control the situation,” Larry says.
“See that’s the thing,” Candy says. “Guys like you are all about control. That shit don’t play here. You gotta give all of that up. Show your ass – do what you’re told. Think you can do that, Larry?”
“I can do whatever I put my mind to.”
“You can’t bitch slap a camera.”
Candy walks away leaving Larry with no response. The pimps are operating under an old paradigm and it’s one that may not live much longer. At the bar after a shoot, Lori tries to communicate to CC just how much their world is changing. She tells him how crazy it is that women are coming to the city now and bypassing the streets altogether. She is trying to pitch this as a sort of “isn’t it wild?” innocent observation to CC but it’s clear that she wishes she were completely divested of the streets, herself.
By episode’s end Lori does something drastic: she visits a manager, Kiki Rains (played by Orange is the New Black’s excellent Alysia Reiner). Kiki tells her that the industry is changing. Managers used to work for directors doing little else but finding “fresh meat.” Now they work for their clients and make lots of money together in this brave new world. Lori saw Kiki say something to a director on a shoot she was on earlier. What were they talking about?
“About shooting my client with respect. Professional respect,” Kiki says.
Respect. Can you even fucking imagine?
Since The Deuce is such a lovingly-crafted, professionally made show it almost can’t help but glorify everything its camera catches. Some filmmakers and TV showrunners are so good at depicting the vibrancy of the human experience that everything they depict, good, bad, and ugly comes across as good merely because it feels so real, and how could anything so real be bad?
David Simon is one of those storytellers. And it’s clear that he and his fellow writers, producers, and directors know that about themselves. So they’re able to to intersperse little thematic stopping points like Lori’s meeting with Kiki into their art just to remind us “while this is moving very fast and you’re having a lot of fun, please remember that just because the colors are bright, the world isn’t perfect.”
The changes afoot for The Deuce in “There’s an Art to This” are exciting and it’s wonderful to watch our characters grapple with the repercussions of them. Thankfully the show is also smart enough to undercut the excitement of those changes just enough.
For in reality of the show, for as much as things are changing for the better and the worse, oftentimes things remain the same.
Some of Paul’s customers at the gay bar may be famous stars now but they’re still getting gay bashed on the street. And while Paul wants to live a mob free life when he buys his new bar, now he’s got yet another mobster on his case, pointing out that if Rudy Pipilo can’t keep his customers safe – what is he paying for?
Detective Alston gets to the bottom of his murder case. The out-of-towner was indeed a John, this time one looking for a young male prostitute. The prostitute almost certainly robbed and killed his Alston’s dead vic but admitting that would mean admitting to the Mayor’s office that nothing is changing downtown. So instead he massages the story into the tourist lashing out at the prostitute and the boy acting in self-defense.
“And here you are looking to protect the tourists from New York. Turns out we need to protect New York from the tourists,” Alston tells the representative from Koch’s office.
No one on this show has undergone as radical a change as Candy. Once a veteran streetwalker, Candy now commands more respect. She is able to get breakfast at a diner with her kid now and seriously entertain the idea of buying a two-bedroom apartment for the two of them. She directs people at work and they (mostly) listen to her. She’s able to now choose the name she wants.
But when Harvey sets up a nice dinner for her with an adult film director she respects, she’s given an ugly reminder that while circumstances may change, attitudes often do not. After sharing her thoughts about the craft and the industry in inspiring fashion, the director leaves Candy with one last nugget of advice about adult film actors.
“Stop using whores. They’re dead around the eyes,” she says.
“There’s an Art to This” depicts a world in a near-constant state of change and highlights all of the excitement that comes with it. Change may be the default state of the world, but the people inside that world can’t always see it.