Last year, when I reviewed the inaugural season of The Deuce, HBO’s series about the rise of the sex industry in Times Square in the 1970s. I praised the production elements, the writing and most of the cast, led by Oscar nominees James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal. I said the show was “highly recommended as both entertainment and vivid evocation of street life on 42nd Street before it turned into a neon theme park of rampant commercialism.” Now that the second season is underway and we are, at press time, two shows away from the finale, I stand by my earlier assertion. I wish more people were watching this mostly terrific series. It’s the best ignored show on TV.
Why the ratings shortfall? Some people blame Franco, who was hit earlier this year with allegations of sexual misconduct. I’m not going to litigate the accusations leveled against him or the charge of bullying ascribed to him by actress Busy Philipps when she worked with Franco over two decades ago on another obscure TV gem, Freaks and Geeks. But consider this: during a recent media tour promoting The Deuce and a film called The Kindergarten, Gyllenhaal, who shares co-producing credit with Franco for The Deuce, said that she and showrunners David Simon and George Pelecanos (formerly of The Wire) took the charges seriously. Rather than have the media prosecute and sentence Franco, they chose to interview all the women on the set to find out if they ever felt threatened by the actor or had any negative experiences with him. None did and that is why he was not fired. Make of that as you will.
Now, let’s talk about season two. When we left the show at the end of season one, it was 1972. Eileen “Candy” Morrell (a marvelous and wrongfully Emmy-snubbed Gyllenhaal) had traded in her hooker heels on the Deuce (the age-old nickname for 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues) for a decidedly safer vocation in this pre-HIV climate: budding porn actress-director.
Meanwhile, Franco, in his dual role, was playing twin brothers: Vincent Martino, owner of a string of bars and massage parlors bankrolled by the mob; and Frankie, a perpetual screw-up. Frankie is tasked with managing a similarly — cough — connected peep show obviously patterned after the notorious, real-life Times Square staple Show World Center while spoiled-rich-girl-college-dropout-turned-barmaid Abby (Margarita Levieva) was starting a relationship with Vincent. Another streetwalker, Lori (Emily Meade), who we saw in the pilot literally “get off the bus” at Port Authority and get scooped up by manipulative pimp C.C. (Gary Carr), was also beginning her foray into porn.
Of all the characters on the show, Lori’s arc is the most dramatic and potentially tragic. This is particularly evident as the show, in season two, fast-forwards to 1977-78. Those were the years when NYC was a pure amalgam of glamour and grime. Lori’s in demand as a popular porn actress, building a name for herself in a burgeoning industry. She even wins a coveted industry award as “Best Supporting Actress” for an adult film. C.C. later smashes the statuette after Lori, triumphant and proud, tells him she won’t trick again. As she sees her trophy, probably the first thing she’s ever won in her sad life, destroyed beyond repair, her heartbreak is palpable: no matter how much success Lori gains in the adult film industry, she’s still C.C.’s prisoner. In fact, not only does C.C. continue to siphon off most of Lori’s earnings, he keeps her under his control by using threats, intimidation and violence — the same methods he employed on one of his former girls, Ashley (a sensitive Jamie Neumann), before she escaped from him during season one, aided and abetted by Abby and Vincent.
Now, Ashley returns with a vengeance. Only she’s not a sex worker, she’s Dorothy, an activist committed to protecting the rights of prostitutes. Dorothy is also Ashley’s real name, and she’s the scourge of the pimps, particularly C.C., who considers her his “runaway.” Her confrontations with C.C., though tense and charged, have not resulted in physical violence, yet there’s an ominous overtone to these scenes. They clearly telegraph an unpleasant outcome to his character or for the two women who once willingly made him the epicenter of their existence. Whatever happens, the show’s heavy-handed foreshadowing indicates that C.C.’s a goner. (Spoiler alert: I was right but very surprised at what happens to him.)
Kudos to Carr, a fine British actor, for delivering a precise, nuanced performance as an increasingly unhinged pimp refusing to accept his oncoming obsolescence. Also registering strongly this season is Gbenga Akinnagbe as Larry Brown, another pimp, but with a polar opposite arc. Unlike C.C., Larry follows Candy and Lori into the porn world by becoming a porn actor himself. His comedic trajectory from street hustler to earnest, um, thespian has been nothing short of a delight, and Akinnagbe has chops to go with his gleaming bod and physical prowess. (Note to showrunners Simon and Pelecanos: don’t you dare kill him off.) Sadly, Dominique Fishback, who impressed in season one as Darlene, a sweet prostitute with an interest in learning and literature, is wasted so far in season two.
My favorite subplot this season is the making of Candy’s film Red Hot, a erotic retelling of Little Red Riding Hood through a feminist lens. Little Red (Meade, as Lori) turns the tables on the wolf (Akinnagbe, as Larry) who’s been chasing her all over NYC. After being denied a permit to film on the streets, Candy flouts the restrictions. She tells her mentor, friend and erotic film auteur Harvey Wasserman (the wonderfully wry, massively slimmed-down David Krumholtz) that she and her crew will film guerrilla-style. Countering the darkness of certain storylines, it’s a pleasure to get this light, picaresque film-within-a-film reprieve.
As for Franco — sorry, haters, he does acquit himself well in his dual role. Do I think he’s off the hook? I’m guessing as long as there’s not a fresh round of accusations lodged against him, he’s in the clear. Certainly the showrunners, Simon and Pelecanos, seem staunchly committed to the actor’s continuing presence in the series: Franco’s Vincent and Gyllenhaal’s Candy are the leads who drive most of the storyline, so there’s a lot riding on both of them. There’s also only one more season left and HBO seems to have given the showrunners carte blanche even if the show isn’t exactly a ratings blockbuster. Then again, neither was The Wire initially when it ran on HBO; later on, that changed. Maybe the cable network is betting on the same for The Deuce.
Showing little signs of the sophomore slump that frequently befalls other series, The Deuce is still the best show on TV that no one is watching. Considering how #MeToo has shone a light on societal attitudes that sanction and institutionalize misogyny in the workplace through the objectification of women, the show is especially timely. Unlike the previous season, where it was inexplicably ignored by the Emmy Awards, I’m hoping that next time it will get some richly deserved love from the Television Academy. Perhaps that might be enough to compel viewers to tune into this splendid period piece when it returns next year for its final bow.