Two TV Critics Talk About Season 1 of ‘The Deuce’

David Simon's new HBO drama explores objectification, curiosity, commerce and exploitation -- and sex, of course

The Deuce Season 1
Courtesy of HBO

HBO’s chronicle of early ‘70s New York, “The Deuce,” wrapped up its first season Sunday night. The sprawling series tells a multifaceted story of the sex trade, from the pimps and prostitutes on the street to the mob bosses and directors who control pornography.

Maureen Ryan: Any number of TV shows and networks — especially in premium cable — have used the naked bodies of women to keep viewers coming back. TV also loves to portray sex workers, but those depictions are usually one-dimensional. So when the news came down that HBO was doing a drama about sex workers in the early ‘70s, more than a few eyes rolled.

That said, what checked the cynicism of many was knowing who was at the helm of this project: David Simon, the creator of “The Wire.” His co-creator was George Pelecanos, a novelist with whom Simon had worked on “Treme” and “The Wire.” Given that Simon’s five-season chronicle of Baltimore’s cops, politicians and criminals is one of TV’s all-time great series, the chances that “The Deuce” would be exploitative were small. But still, I worried a bit. Were you nervous too, or was I the only one?

Sonia Saraiya: Actually, I swung in the other direction. I wasn’t nervous at all: I have a lot of faith in Simon, and I was excited to see his take on the sex trade after watching his work on drugs and housing in “The Wire” and “Show Me a Hero.” I was struck by some of the remarks that Maggie Gyllenhaal made about her character Eileen — a.k.a. “Candy” — who is, to my mind, the pillar of the show’s success. When she was promoting the show with Simon and James Franco at the Television Critics Association press tour, she made a persuasive case for needing to confront misogyny in order to understand it:

“We have this opportunity to pick [misogyny] up and lay it on the table and to do it in a way that’s thoughtful and smart,” she said. “That includes having to see some things that look violent and uncomfortable. But I think, if you don’t put that on the table and take a really good, clear look at it, nothing will change.”

I still agree with Gyllenhaal, I think; after I watched the first season and reviewed it, I felt that the show portrayed its many characters in complicated and genuine ways. But lately I’ve been wondering if “The Deuce” just isn’t helping. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, so many stories have come out about sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood that it has invited a re-examination of our narratives around sex, power, and violence. And prestige dramas like “The Deuce” have always been at the crux of this conversation — high production values brought to what is often lowbrow content, be it sex or drugs or the mob. Successful prestige drama often walks a line between the carrot of titillation and the stick of empathy, and I myself have been drawn into many shows with this tension. Is that just how humans are built? Or are we still clinging to paradigms that create harm, not just for televised characters, but for real men and women in the world?

In last night’s finale there’s an intriguing scene where Eileen and director Harvey Wasserman (David Krumholtz) go over the take from the coin-op videos and are told that lesbian sex and interracial porn — specifically, black men paired with white women — are the biggest moneymakers. Eileen, on the spot, has a hypothesis for why, and she describes it as a male fantasy of hoping that the women they desire are just as horny as they are.

There’s a taut line of connection between Eileen, the seller of fantasies, and any creator of film or television, including the ones of “The Deuce.” She didn’t create the fantasy; she just knows how to interpret it, package it, market it. Does that make her responsible for the ugly realities of humanity those salable fantasies suggest? I don’t know. But if she perpetuates it — and she certainly will — is she extending that ugly fantasy’s footprint, when really men and women might all do better free of these expectations and shames?

Maybe “The Deuce” needed to push a little harder on the fantasies it was covering; understanding the subtext of interracial porn doesn’t make the implications any less degrading for practically everyone involved. And then again, I thought it was kind of interesting that Gyllenhaal as Eileen, an overlooked female director, is being directed in the finale by Michelle MacLaren, herself an overlooked female director; at least in the conversation around female exploitation, a few women are adding their perspectives to the show.

Ryan: I think that’s part of the point, actually. Like you, I’ve been having a lot of conversations with our peers in this industry, about the system of promotion, lionization and commercialization that we undoubtedly participate in. There’s more than enough complicity to go around, as we’ve seen in recent weeks — though of course, I would never confuse the status of the survivors (many of them women, most of them powerless) versus that of those who operate the machinery of stardom, fame and objectification (most of them men, many of them unwilling to do a public reckoning when it comes to what they’ve aided and tolerated).

But that is, in some ways, what “The Deuce” is exploring. I almost think I can see the wheels going around and around inside the heads of three of “The Deuce’s” female characters. Eileen/Candy literally dragged a crew member around the set, trying to figure out where her vantage point — i.e., the gaze of the camera — should be. So often acted upon, she had a chance to take control of the narrative — but of course, that narrative existed within a very narrow range, one that had to involve naked people having sex. But you’re so right that Gyllenhaal has tapped into something fascinating about Candy, who’s genuinely curious about how desire connects up to imagery and how that is marketed and sold. There was a real sense of thrilling discovery in her realization that she could take command of that set, if only for one day. If her only options were to go from street sex worker to escort and then to porn director, she was clearly going to take as much of that power as she could.

I don’t want to get too “you go girl!” with this response, because “The Deuce” is certainly not cheerleading everything it so engagingly and often dispassionately dissects. It’s certainly not as if everyone in this story has much — or any — control over what happens to them. We saw Sandra put all the pieces together in her police corruption investigation, but the really juicy stuff was cut out by her editor, who needed her to name names, something she didn’t have the power to make happen.

And though Abby (Margarita Levieva) hasn’t been all that career-focused, she is sharply observant and misses nothing. Ruby (Pernell Walker), probably the most engaging character of all, ended up dead on the sidewalk when a customer got angry and threw her out a window like she was nothing. Not that long before, Candy glided by in a cab, on her way to the semi-lavish premiere of “Deep Throat.” The implication was, as it has been all season, that an array of white men who are unafraid of violence will end up with all the real power, and those below them will scrabble for what they can get.

Abby, a free spirit but fiercely aware of hierarchies, saw that Vince (Franco) was callous about Ruby’s death, and it bothered her. Vince might not be the worst guy — in fact, he’s a decent boss and semi-decent boyfriend (and a terrible husband, to be sure). But what he was willing to put up with made Abby sad and angry. Not that Vince noticed. And it’s that kind of convenient obliviousness that “The Deuce” is all too aware of. It’s up to the women of the story to interrogate why things are the way they are — if they don’t, this casually brutal world could take them down some very bad paths. And it’s that curiosity — and quite often the women’s quiet tenacity — that has made this season so watchable for me.

Saraiya: It’s definitely been watchable, and at the end of the day, it’s one of my favorite things I’ve seen this fall. Ruby’s death is as flawless a commentary on the cheaply held value of her life as I could have hoped. But even with the relationship between Abby and Vince that you’re describing, I feel like your interpretation gives “The Deuce” almost too much credit. Abby is one of the show’s most perplexing characters — a redundancy, almost, who loses her raison d’être as soon as she gives Darlene (Dominique Fishback) that ticket home. Abby is handed around as an object of attraction in the pilot before landing in Vince’s lap, and from then on, she’s how the show contextualizes Vince — she softens him. Abby exists more for Vince than she does for herself.

And though the show does give you enough to see her role in the story as part of this world’s overlapping matrices of gaze and power and sex, it doesn’t always seem as if the show is committed to that interpretation. Vince and Frankie, the twins played by Franco, are frequently the least interesting characters — not because Franco’s performance isn’t great, but because they are merely the conduits through which other stories are told. I wish it wasn’t the given that they would be central characters; I wish that “The Deuce” worked a little harder to prove to us why the white guys needed to be protagonists of this story.

Time and again, it really doesn’t. Beyond “The Deuce” is the show I feel like it could be — a show that explores not just the dynamics of the burgeoning porn industry but the dynamics of male desire itself. I’d like to see the show take more ownership than simple depiction, and dig into why anyone is doing what they are doing; a central and mostly unanswered question of the first season is why girls like Darlene and Lori (Emily Meade) choose the lives they do. The answer is there, as you point out, in the subtext, and maybe I’m being too demanding in insisting on literality of some kind. But on the other hand, sometimes there’s subtext and sometimes there’s just muddled details, and I’m not sure what side “The Deuce” is on.

Ryan: I hear you on the characters — I really hope that in Season Two, we get more textured  storylines for Abby, Candy, Darlene and the other women in the show. Sidebar: If next season, we spent a lot of time with Paul (Chris Coy) and Abby running a downtown bar/rock venue and depicting the incredible music scenes and LGBTQ culture of New York City in the ‘70s, that would be amazing. (Another note: If we ended up with only one Martino twin in the show — preferably Vince — would “The Deuce” lose that much?)

But back to your point: There are times that I am not sure that “The Deuce” is all that interested in sex, except as an economic engine feeding corruption and (eventually) corporate exploitation. Simon loves his urban world-building, and where “The Deuce” was most successful, for me, was in sketching a believable portrait of the economic and cultural ecosystem at a particular time and place in America. Once that scaffolding was up and running, “The Deuce” was very interested in starting to show who was getting more power and money funneled to them, and who was likely to end up on the losing side of almost every equation. I’d like to think that if “The Deuce” gets a good long run, it’ll end with the opening of the first chain restaurant and/or corporate tourist trap in Times Square — as a suit-clad Rudy Pipilo (Michael Rispoli) adds up his crew’s millions in a sleek glass tower.

But where the show is now — at ground level, as New York heads for a financial nadir — is fascinating to me. What was it like to hang out in a dive bar full of sex workers, college kids, gay people and shady characters? What is it like, psychologically, to be a sex worker? That was something that could have been explored further, though Gyllenhaal’s expressive eyes told us so much about Candy’s inner life. I’m not sure how I feel about the almost elegaic treatment of the pimps, who were exploiting women, and inflicting constant mental and physical abuse on them. Were the mobsters running the brothels any better? It’s a fair question, one that more screen time for Darlene and Candy might help answer.  

What’s strangest of all is that, in a very dark year, all of these topics could have been too much, but as he proved when he put Oscar Isaac in the middle of a story about housing discrimination, Simon is very savvy about how he dresses up the civic, social and class issues that he cares about. “The Deuce” could be dark, but it never felt hopeless, in part because it was so enjoyable on a sensory level. The streets were believably trashy (you could practically smell the odor of 42nd St.), the colors and the clothes were just right, and the entire series had that rich, saturated feel of a classic ‘70s film. As the start to what promises to be a dense, detailed story about the intersections of exploitation, sexuality and commerce, I enjoyed it. But I hope it goes deeper next time.