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November 05, 2018 at 02:30 PM EST

The Deuce is too much, and that’s why I love it.

HBO’s smart ensemble drama (which concluded its second season on Sunday) is most obviously about the ’70s adult film industry, and the wide world of sex work exists onscreen across multiple stratospheres. There are streetwalking prostitutes and porno chic starlebrities, bad deaths in windowless screw parlors just a couple blocks away from cocaine-sozzled film premieres where proud filmmakers brandish positive Variety reviews. Also: cops, activists, politicians, the bar, the diner, da club. Messy, sometimes, but that means The Deuce moves fast, packing weeks of evolving incidents into the screentime it takes a typical superhero show to do one endless single-take fight where people punch Daredevil until Daredevil punches them.

The show’s not speechy, but you feel that co-creators George Pelecanos and David Simon badly want you get it, to understand the Real Story. That story is, literally, the ground beneath everyone’s feet. Throughout season 2, behind blocked windows in an empty storefront, the Midtown Enforcement Project plots urban renewal. Its goal, explains renovationist Gene Goldman (Luke Kirby), is to “increase the speculative value of the real estate.”

Increasing the Speculative Value of Real Estate was, coincidentally, the nefarious motivation underpinning Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor in the first Superman movie. The baddie wanted to bombquake California into the Pacific, thus transforming his desert land holdings into expensive oceanfront property. Superman arrived in theaters in 1978, the year The Deuce season 2 just galloped through. And history suggests that what Goldman is plotting is a kind of apocalypse for the show’s characters. He’s not launching a missile at anyone, but he is indirectly dropping an ESPN Zone on Times Square. The nuke works faster.

Real estate is, like, the David Simon TV theme of the 2010s. Tremé (co-created by Eric Overmyer) was a musical drama enraged at the possibility that fatal climate disaster was a hot new trend servicing neighborhood gentrification. (Treme‘s Lex Luthors didn’t exactly plan Katrina, but they took the hurricane as a disaster-capitalistic opportunity.) The incredible 2015 miniseries Show Me a Hero presented a true-life Yonkers battle over public housing as the new American tale of proxy racism, a nominally political conversation with white rage mobs defending (smash!) the character (crash!) of our community (bash!)

The second season of The Deuce had another side, playfully self-aware and just as demolishing. Tricky to say there was any A-plot, but there was a special focus this year on Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Eileen, better known as “Candy” (the name I’ll use since Gyllenhaal seems to prefer it). Candy began the series as a self-employed prostitute, her pimpless existence an affront to the local patriarchy. When season 2 begins five years later, she’s a minor porn celebrity working to direct her first adult feature film. Whatever your thoughts are on pornography, the simple low-rent realities of filming Candy’s feature are Ed Woodishly embarrassing. Cops pull up for front row seats to an outdoor sex scene. Film canisters get lost on a subway. She has to pitch her bold artistic vision in brute cha-ching terms: Make a skin flick for women, you double your potential demographic base!

But The Deuce takes her arty aspirations seriously. Candy’s reboots the tale of Little Red Riding Hood into an explicitly autobiographical consideration of a young woman walking midtown Manhattan streets. Her cinematic style is lipstick neorealism, the stars pretty much playing themselves. As Red, Lori (sorrowfully sultry Emily Meade) gets lost on the same busy street where she used to turn tricks without cameras following her. Larry (comedy-charisma firebomb Gbenga Akinnagbe) plays his predatory Wolf with all the flirty-intimidation skills he used as a street pimp.

It’s all very meta. Lori herself is struggling Riding Hood-ishly within the dominion of her own pimp C.C. (Gary Carr, my best guess in the “Which Deuce Actor Will Soon Be Cast In Everything” sweepstakes.) And the tale of Candy, the Female Filmmaker exists in direct conversation with every 2018-ish trending topic about female agency in show business. Early in season 2, Candy visits a Hollywood producer. She asks for funding; he asks for a blowjob. Gyllenhaal’s performance in that scene deserves an Emmy, a Peabody, and a national moment of silence. Candy will do anything for her movie. She’s done worse for less.

There’s a world where the tale of Candy the filmmaker becomes inspiring but cheap, antihistorical because rendering actual history feels immoral. In a fabulous conversation with New York Magazine‘s David Marchese that should be read aloud to all American teenagers, Gyllenhaal expressed the complexity of Candy’s season 2 saga. She explains how, in the initial drafting of that Hollywood producer scene, Simon felt that Candy should just walk out of the skeezebag’s office. Gyllenhaal had a different thought:

I was like, “I don’t think she should [leave the office]. I think she’s got to do it.” Otherwise she’s kind of a superhero. Almost every woman can relate to doing a much more subtle version of what Candy is being asked to do in that scene — acquiescing in a way they wished they hadn’t…if Candy walks out, you lose everyone’s understanding.

If you’ll pardon a deep dive into film-student wonkiness: Candy’s journey taps a few veins of auteur theory, which declares that a film’s director is the sole author of their work. Like all critical theories, auteurism makes complete sense except in the regular circumstances when it’s laughably incorrect. But Red Hot comes across as Candy’s story. She constructs it with an eye toward philosophical analytics, rife with demi-feminist symbolism, all-but quoting some of Laura Mulvey’s ideas from the groundbreaking “male gaze”-coining essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

Candy’s so conscious of her themes that her producer Harvey (David Krumholtz) jokes that she’ll have to “explain the cinematic subtext” to their investors. At times like that, The Deuce becomes a little self-conscious in its academic affectations, like the show’s nudging the brainiacs in the crowd with some off-brand Simpsons referential humor. Like, come on, Candy asks Harvey, “What’s that movie with the guy with an M on the back of his jacket?” (It’s a historic tragedy that Harvey doesn’t respond “Z.”)

As the season wound down, though, Candy’s act of self-expression got problematized by the brutal realities of her business. In 1978 as in 2018, there aren’t nearly enough employed female directors. But paradoxically, that makes Candy a big selling point for Red Hot. “We put a lady director out in front of us, cleans us up to people,” Harvey tells his investors. One of the shady moneymen behind Red Hot declares that Candy is “good for the feminism part.” It’s a cosmic act of undercutting: Here’s a disgusting powerful man praising his female director for providing him with a plausibly undeniable social consciousness. She sees the female gaze. He sees carbon-offset wokeness.

That line about “the feminism part” echoes an eerie interaction from the most recent season of BoJack Horseman. Different time, different place, different-ish industry, different dimension, same story: Self-declared streaming-television auteurist Flip McVicker (voiced by Rami Malek) thanks his new staff writer Diane (Alison Brie) for the air cover her mere presence was providing. “You’re the lady who’s gonna make my show less sexist, right?” he says. The good news, he explains, is she doesn’t have to do any work at all:

Sit in my office, don’t chew too loud, and collect your paycheck. Then, when the show comes out, people will see your name in the credits and say “Huh, a lady worked on the show. Guess it’s not sexist.”

Now, anyone who reads the opening credits of TV shows has noticed more female names in the “directed by” slot the last few years. As Gyllenhaal herself mentioned in that great NY Mag interview, all but one of the directors working on The Deuce season 2 happened to be female. On one hand, maybe nothing new for this series: The season 1 premiere and finale were helmed by Michelle MacLaren, a great TV director with such an impressive CV that she’s practically Twitter’s Platonic Ideal of a “great TV director.” On the other hand, well, two episodes of the first season were directed by James Franco.

The problem of Franco is not something season 2 of The Deuce worked overtime to fix. The actor still plays two central characters: Vincent and Frankie Martino, local gallant and goofus respectively. Vincent is still a key focal character, representing some essential aspect of love-hating New York ambition. Something in season 2’s renewed focus on Candy feels telling, but hard to say what we’re being told. Fair to wonder, maybe, if that line about “the feminism part” was an act of rueful self-awareness, on a series casually (proudly?) employing mostly female directors. (Fair to wonder, too, if someone below the line was staging a quiet rebellion: Franco’s Vincent hair was unquestionably the season’s worst wig.)

In reference to the Franco Problem, Gyllenhaal says: “I don’t think there’s a way to do this show without consciously knowing that you’re part of a larger conversation about exploitation and misogyny.” On the show, it really feels like a conversation. Behind-the-scenes, it’s a potentially transformative one, as the show’s hiring of intimacy coordinator could become a new industry standard for filming sex scenes. Gyllenhaal herself describes the series itself as “a mixture of feminine and masculine expression,” perhaps the most optimistic-sounding phrase in the Year of Collins/Kavanaugh.

Is such a mixture possible? I guess you can read The Deuce every way, this triumph of fascinating femininity or this co-option of fascinating femininity by the patriarchy. Like, free thinkpieces: “The Deuce is HBO’s apology for Entourage” or “The Deuce is Entourage with an Econ degree.” More direct, I think, to view the dialectical nature of The Deuce as a rebuke to auteurism — or anyhow, the most blandly simplified version of pop auteurism. Onscreen, Candy directs Red Hot with a kind of radical generosity. She hires Harvey’s wife Jocelyn (Genevieve Hudson-Price) as a writer, promoting her right through assistanthood’s glass ceiling. She stuntcasts Larry and Lori with the reasoning that their performances are a kind of autobiography — a philosophy that recalls how often The Wire brought in non-actors to play supporting parts, cops playing cops, journalists playing journalists.

In the finale, all Candy’s triumphs are also a kind of tragedy. She goes on late night television, and gets punchlined by network TV host who clearly doesn’t grok Laura Mulvey. Her movie does great box office — and she won’t get one cent from it, the profits split between two mobsters who resemble onscreen every chubby-clubby notion of The Bad Men Who Run The World. She already has plans for her next film, but success has made her dangerously public. Her father won’t let her see her son, and we see he’s got a playground bruise, presumably bullied by kids about his pornstar mom.

Am I making this finale sound depressing? It was enthralling, kind of funny, maybe too obviously a wind-up for the already-announced third/final season. Bad death was all around. C.C. had died in an unexpectedly bloody parlor showdown. Poor Dorothy (Jamie Neumann) wound up murdered by some pimp or another. Rodney (Method Man) shot up a local pharmacy, before getting shot down by Officer Haddix (Ralph Macchio, such a gleefully babyfaced vision of amoral police corruption).

The season’s final shot was exultantly dispiriting. The camera pulled back from Franco’s problematic face, onto infinite nightclub denizens dancing, dancing, dancing. The future is coming for them: Redevelopment, money culture, addiction, AIDS. The ’80s is, like, the Sauron of The Deuce‘s universe, a lingering monstrosity haunting everything happy.

“What we do is not going away,” Candy declares in the finale, “Not ever.” She’s right and wrong. Porn’s not going anywhere, it’s on the Oculus Rift! Candy’s eras, though, will fade: The possibility of adult-content auteurism giving way to PG-13 blockbusterdom, the shot-on-film porn industry Boogie Nightsing downward to cruel videotape. You finished season 2 with a dark, familiar suspicion: A golden age was ending, and all the wrong people got rich.

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09/10/17
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