The Deuce – Season 1 (2017)
I’ve been a fan of the weekly podcast The Rialto Report ever since it started in 2013, in which hosts Ashley West and April Hall cover that fascinating 15 years or so period known as the Golden Age of Porn. Recounted by many of the players themselves, it was the time in which those pesky American obscenity laws started to loosen, or, I guess more accurately, began to fluctuate, leading to those early porn pioneer anti-heroes (at least that’s how I see them) taking the chance of more brazenly presenting hardcore cinematic content (while still taking all sorts of legal chances, with the constant threat of jail terms due to fuzzy laws, byzantine legal interpretations, as well as when and where the forces of authority deemed it time to morally crack down, always dangling over their heads), to the resounding victory tune of astounding box office success, as well as, even more amazingly, much mainstream critical acknowledgement (deservedly so, in some cases, such as a personal fave, Gerard Damiano’s brilliant The Devil in Miss Jones).
I was a big fan of authors Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford’s deeply evocative (and luridly gross) tour through those sticky and dangerous grindhouse cinemas of the Deuce with their book “Sleazoid Express”; so much so, that when I moved into Manhattan in 1990 (just eight streets directly below the Deuce, no less), I used to walk along those (still seedy, but no longer anywhere near as dangerous or threatening) Time Square streets trying to figure out which marquee (still up then, but long gone now) belonged to which now closed grindhouse cinema (was it the Apollo? The Lyric? The Anco?). I still try and get down to New York for the Williamsburg Brooklyn Nitehawk Cinema’s monthly The Deuce series, in which they screen an original (often ratty) 35mm print that played in one of the original theaters and the energetic presenters provide a brief, entertaining (and almost always fascinatingly storied) history of the particular grindhouse cinema the film played in.
So it was with some excitement that I delved into The Deuce (the nickname for that once nasty area of Times Square where it all happened, from prostitution and pornography, to the high-strung crime crack epidemic, to the now Disney-ified corporate paving over that has done it’s best to bury its seedy past), especially knowing that along with David Simon running the show (they same guy who created The Wire back in the early aughts, the inner-city Baltimore crime show about the intermingling effects of drugs and crime on the communities as well as on law enforcement that is, by all accounts, a brilliant watch and, like The Sopranos, I sheepishly admit I still haven’t gotten around to), “The Rialto Report”’s own, West and Hall, were asked to come aboard as consultants.
First off, the makers have clearly done a ton of research in evocatively recreating the entire seedy, garbage-strewn and openly sex-selling Deuce, using what has to be a ton of brilliant digital work, as I seriously doubt (though it’s certainly fun to imagine) the evil empire Disney and their corporate brethren who now own the Deuce would let them replace the blocks of tourist friendly idiocy they’ve created (the same brain-dead conformist nonsense that they’ve sprayed like candy-coated semen over most of the entire world) with porn, prostitutes and very tired men in blue. What a pleasure to not only read all those deliberately lurid porn titles on the recreated marquees, but to even catch glimpses of double feature billings such as Dario Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage with the early American gore scores The Undertaker and his Pals.
The intertwining colourful characters whose paths cross in various ways along the Deuce that we’re introduced to — from bartenders, gay and straight, struggling to pay their rent, to degenerate gamblers and drug addicts, to cops on the beat trying to figure out if they should keep their noses to the sleazy grindstone and ignore the obvious corruption going on above them, to the mafia guys working in cahoots with the higher ups in the police force slowly setting up 42nd street porn and massage parlors, to the young African American woman journalist trying to convince any of the street folk to speak with her, to the hustlers, the pimps and prostitutes – certainly provide interesting viewing. However, as truthful as the lives we see them live may be, and as fascinating as the milieu was, I kept getting the nagging feeling that I’d seen a lot of this before. For better or worse, it’s a bit too familiar.
The premise of the show wasn’t necessarily that it was gonna be all about the development – and explosion – of porn on the Deuce (that was just my interest knowing how the intrepid Rialto folks were on board), but it’s certainly one of the more fascinating aspects. And while the show eventually moves in that direction, it takes a long time, and doesn’t even get too far into it by the end of the season, though it does manage to work in, by name, Wakefield Poole’s Fire Island big gay artistic splash, The Boys in the Sand (a film I haven’t seen but have on DVD somewhere back there on the shelves… right next to Poole’s later epic The Bible… I mean, how can anyone not be charmed by the idea of a telling of biblical tales as artistic gay porn?) and the one that really changed everything (meaning, porn and the Deuce) and got all the stars to attend the premiere, Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat (a way overrated film that’s a wet noodle against the throbbing brilliance of Damiano’s aforementioned later true porn masterpiece, The Devil in Miss Jones).
We have to move through a lot of familiar street stories to get there, though. For instance, anyone who has seen enough shows and is familiar enough with the methods of seduction and brutality of the street pimp – at least how a middle class suburban white kid like moi understands it – knew exactly how that first episode was going to conclude, rendering the act of savage cruelty presented entirely unsurprising (not helped along by the fact that it isn’t particularly effectively presented). The pimps may look great (and they seriously rock those outfits), the relationships with their girls are well established (alternating between poignant, scary and depressing)… but we’ve seen it before.
James Franco in dual role
The stunt casting of James Franco as twin brothers, one a responsible and likeable bar owner and the other an impulsive destructive gambler, works well enough because Franco is an affable presence, but I too often had trouble telling his dual roles apart. Franco has never been the most gifted or talented of performers, but I’ve always kinda admired the unpretentious zeal with which he approaches his prodigious output (and once in awhile he hits pay dirt with the right material and director… like his maniacally impressive turn as the gold-toothed, grinning fool drug dealer Alien in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers). His recent directorial effort, for instance, The Disaster Artist, in which he also stars as the woefully eccentric (to the point of serious mental illness) real-life director of The Room, Tommy Wiseau, is engaging in an easy-to-take manner, but it’s ultimately a Hollywood style status quo piece of fluff, with Franco doing more of a physical pantomime of Wiseau, rather than crafting a genuine, textured performance.
The Deuce is fortunately a well cast affair, which adds immensely to the (too) long developing storyline and at the top of the list has to be the brave work by Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing an ambitious prostitute, stubbornly resisting being pimped by anyone, who becomes immediately taken by the burgeoning world of porn including showing an immediate aptitude for filmmaking and directing sex scenes. Her character’s desperation (and surprise talent in the porn world, driven by a desire to create a better life for herself and her young child) is palpably realized and Gyllenhaal is suddenly not afraid to allow herself revealed in less than flattering lights, both physically and emotionally.
David Krumholtz, who shows up for the last five episodes, is perhaps the most openly sympathetic of characters, and that’s saying something, as he’s a sleazy, low end, opportunistic (yet penny ante) middling porn director shlub, who at least is smart enough to realize the rising star he has with the Gyllenhaal character, agreeing to her insistences of making her his partner. In fact, he’s such a likeable loser that as we realize his burgeoning crush on her, it’s hard not to root for him, even though his success with her seems doubtful. Ngozi Jane Anyanwu stands out, managing a genuine tenderness and cuteness as a prostitute (though her pimp is probably the kindest of the lot, which isn’t saying much) who finds herself turning from street walker to working in a massage parlor. I don’t know how important Margarita Levieva’s rich college drop-out trying to escape from under her rich parents clutches by shacking up with one of the Franco brothers is to the narrative (not particularly at this point) but, man, is she gorgeous… and her cavalier, confidant demeanor definitely works for me. I can’t take my eyes off her when she’s on-screen.
As the episodes passed and the changing porn landscape evolved (if in dramatically too slow a fashion), it did ultimately grow more interesting. I wouldn’t claim it as anything approaching the status of greatness (as a lot of shows are… I mean it’s an embarrassment of riches right now on the television landscape), but it’s serviceable as drama and, as I said, it does do a brilliant job recreating the 70’s Deuce (a milieu I’m always fond of settling into). In other words, I’ll be there for season two.