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HBO's The Deuce Feels Newly Relevant in Second Season

In its second season, David Simon and George Pelecanos’ “The Deuce” jumps ahead five years in time. Suddenly, it’s 1977. Eileen “Candy” Merrell (Maggie Gyllenhaal) walks the streets in an expensive, impossibly chic silk jumpsuit. Vincent Martino stands behind the bar of an exclusive disco, absent—along with the leotards—from the Hi-Hat. Abby runs the little bar, and she’s got bangs now. C.C. is a stone in Lori’s shoe; Darlene reads books in public; Larry Brown has goals that don’t include tricking. The streets remain crowded, but not with sex workers. The cameras are still rolling, but they’re more than just a side-hustle now. It’s all different: the music, the clothes, the hair, the money, the life. And yet at the end of the day, as Eileen so memorably said in the first season, “it’s still fucking.” 

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Put another way: the more things change, the more they stay the same. That was one of the most potent themes of “The Wire,” which even as it saw dynamics, relationships, policies, lives shift radically, inevitably began each cycle over again. If anything, the biggest change in the second season of “The Deuce” is that Simon and Pelecanos seem to have hit their stride with this particular story, expertly balancing character-driven storytelling with a wide-angle view of the social, economic, political, cultural, sexual, and gendered dynamics of the era. As before, authenticity and accuracy reign supreme; as before, the era and area are both drawn so vividly you almost can’t help but conjure up the smell. But the series feels newly relevant and resonant, and that’s the cleverest trick the show pulls: by making clear how little things have changed, deep down, in those five years, it underlines how little things have changed, deep down, right now.

It’s reductive to say that money and sex are really about power, but the power dynamics are certainly inextricable from both. It is power, and its shifts and imbalances, that makes the four episodes screened for critics so compelling. The appearance of power. The illusion of power. Power in the form of authority, or money, or independence, or status. The changes that took place in that five-year gap place the characters in uncomfortable, uneasy positions, even in the best of circumstances—Eileen is doing something she clearly enjoys, creating what seems to be a safe work environment for the people around her, and striving to achieve new heights creatively. Yet her ambition is belittled, even by those who respect her; her skills and talents are ignored in favor of her looks and reputation, even by those who know and like her personally. 

As with the first season, it’s Eileen’s story that proves the most compelling, thanks in no small part to a vivid, subtle, and warm performance that crackles with intelligence. But some of what makes her arc so engaging is the unavoidable echo it finds in our current conversations surrounding abuse and exploitation in Hollywood and elsewhere. To Eileen, the films are about sex, but can also be about more; the business is about business, and nothing else. The world refuses to meet her on these terms, in ways big and small—a colleague bellows about penises and perversion at an industry dinner, disregarding her suggestions that it might not be the best time; a meeting with a financial backer becomes the latest in a series of interactions seemingly designed to remind her that she’s nothing but a whore. Nevertheless, she continues to do what she wants, and fights to do so on her own terms; she endures, and makes those watching at home want to curse and spit and cry on her behalf.

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She’s not alone. “The Deuce” is rich in empathy, intelligence, and great performances, and though the cast is almost uniformly great, most of the standout turns come from its female members. While given less to do than in the first season, at least in these early episodes, Dominique Fishback’s Darlene remains one of the series’ most engaging presence, and Fishback winningly underplays the qualities that could render Darlene a too-familiar tope. Her sweetness doesn’t overwhelm her bemusement, her sadness never drowns her intelligence. As Lori, Emily Meade does even better work than she did in the first go-round, due in no small part to a fascinating and often unsettling shift in the dynamics of her relationship with C.C. (Gary Carr), whose ruthlessness is somehow both heightened and diminished by Lori’s success as an adult film actress. 

It would be easy to go on about this ensemble (and I will, a bit), but suffice it to say that if somebody was good last time around, they’re as good, if not better, here. The most pleasant surprise is Gbenga Akinnagbe’s performance as Larry Brown. While Akinnagbe, an alumnus of “The Wire,” is pretty much always good, the unexpected direction in which Larry is taken gives him a great deal to play, granting the character an emotional life that went mostly unexplored in the first season. His turn is dynamic, sometimes even playful, and one of the performances I’m most eager to follow as the season progresses.

Of course, some of that appeal is due to the clothes Larry wears, and the rooms into which he strolls, because the visual world of “The Deuce” remains as textured and evocative as ever. While none of these four episodes quite reach the heights established by director Michelle MacLaren in the first and final outings of the first season, there’s still much to admire, particularly an assured trip down the street, up the stairs, and into a club we take with Eileen (clad in that aforementioned chic jumpsuit). In one of the season’s first sequences, director Alex Hall uses a series of long, lovely shots, mostly filmed from what I’d describe as a respectful, even worshipful distance, to follow Eileen through her world. In those long shots, and those that follow, the color, texture, and framing do more to update us on the world we’re re-entering than any of the dialogue in the episode’s early moments. It’s elegant, efficient, and masterful. 

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In contrast, director Uta Briesewitz chooses to capture Gyllenhaal’s finest moments by placing the camera close to her face and giving us the absolute pleasure of watching her think. One is fluid, the other static; the first takes in the world, the second zeroes in on her face and her mind. Both approaches are dynamite, and make it clear that “The Deuce” remains one of the most finely made series on television—put it on mute, and it will still draw you in.

It has to be said that the show's undeniable contemporary resonance doesn’t stem entirely from the writers room, the terrific performances, or the fact that some things just never change. There’s also James Franco. It’s difficult to comment on the quality of Franco’s performance in this season, because his presence alone affects the series as a whole. When Casey Bloys, HBO’s President of Programming, addressed reporters at the 2018 Television Critics Association summer press tour, he was asked about Franco’s ongoing involvement with “The Deuce” (in addition to playing the Martino twins, he also serves as an executive producer.) “When the Franco issue came up,” Bloys said, “we talked internally, we read the LA Times article, we went through all the information and we talked to Nina, David, George—the executive producers—and Maggie and the actresses and actors on set and we all felt comfortable moving forward with the second season.”

It’s an answer. But it doesn’t address the imbalance of power, in real-life, and not fiction, that could shape such conversations. On one side of the scale, an Oscar-nominee, an executive producer, a very famous guy with not one but two starring roles in his flashy HBO series. On the other, people—some affluent, well-known, and powerful, some not—whose jobs may hang in the balance. There’s no way to know if or how that imbalance of power may have shaped the conversations HBO had with the cast and crew of “The Deuce,” but it’s easy to see how a person with no name, no Oscar nomination, no producer credit might not feel free to say, “hey, yes, I’m uncomfortable, I don’t feel safe.” It’s easy to imagine her shutting up and getting on with it, because the scales are far from level, and she has a lot to lose. 

I can say that for sure, because it’s the kind of conversation you’d see on “The Deuce.”

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