At the beginning of The Deuce‘s second season, Maggie Gyllenhaal walks the Manhattan mean streets, late night lit bright, garbage bags looking half-eaten next to cardboard boxes flattened from rough sleep. If you watched season 1, you’ve seen Gyllenhaal here before. When we met her character, Eileen, she was barely surviving the Times Square sex trade of 1972. She worked nights as a prostitute, Candy, getting assaulted and worse. But now it’s 1977, and Eileen’s a porn star with ambitions toward auteurism. In a dazzling two-minute opening shot, she walks off the grimy sidewalk into a disco dream, an after-hours club with Barry White on the soundtrack promising to dance the night away.
It’s a luscious kickoff for an evolutionary season. The pimps of yore are struggling. Some prostitutes are now famous, new-minted porn stars in the era of porno chic. And a few familiar characters look half-dissolved, addled by drugs and cruel history. “It’s not like how it was when we started,” says Lori (Emily Meade). More money, more ripped-from-the-headlines problems. Clever Darlene (Dominique Fishback) notices she’s making fifty bucks less per day than her white costars. Eileen seeks financing for a passion project, just another female director struggling to be taken seriously.
And there’s this macro story The Deuce is telling, about [deep breath] the Death and Life of the American City. Urban redevelopment sounds less sexy as a show concept than porno showbiz drama, but The Deuce finds clever ways to unify its saga-worthy depiction of ’70s New York. “It’s not morals, it’s money,” says a cynical policeman, observing the latest round of political points-scoring over midtown blight. “It’s not racism, it’s economics,” echoes a cynical porn director, explaining why he won’t let a black man star in his skin flick. Cynical talk, no doubt, but this is also a show about American possibility: artistic aspiration, entrepreneurial endeavor, the hope that collective action can make the world better (or make your pals richer.) A few characters look fully activated by this new era’s ambitions. Sweet former bartender Paul (Chris Coy) is chasing moguldom on the downtown gay club circuit. Abby (Margarita Levieva) has the shaggy hair and fiery temperament of Klute-era Jane Fonda, seeking justice for sex workers; she’s intellectual who digs punk rock for the themes.
It’s a whole lot of show, and I haven’t mentioned all the James Francos. The actor’s weathered accusations of sexual harassment this year, so the prospect of watching him play twins could sound like capital punishment. I understand that perspective — and understand why The Deuce isn’t for everyone. This is a sex show, a portrait of objectification as an industry and an existential concern, on the network that brought you eight years of Hollywood Boobs feat. Jeremy Piven. The show meanders like co-creator David Simon’s Treme, which I really liked and will definitely finish someday. Simon and co-creator George Pelecanos have profound ambitions, but the terse realities of mob wars clash wildly with the surrealities of the adult film world. A few characters freely announce the themes they’re representing. There is a very meta Westworld joke.
But this is a major work, flaws and all, an examination of porn that’s really an exploration of economic disruption. Appropriate for 1977, there’s even a new hope. Eileen’s passion project is a new kind of adult film, a mature-content rendition of the Little Red Riding Hood tale. For Eileen, it’s unmissably autobiographical, the story of a girl lost and assaulted. Now she’s telling the story her way. Watch out, wolves. A-