The Pitch: You always know things are going to go to shit for a character when he’s snorting coke one minute into a new season. It’s practically universal cinematic code for, “This bloke thinks he’s having a party, but you just wait and see, dear audience.” Frankie Martino (one of two twin brothers played by James Franco) is no rookie to lighting the candle at both ends, however. He’s back to the Deuce, and this year he’s dipping his toes into amateur porn. Hey, it’s 1985 and tastes are shifting … younger.
Twin brother Vinnie (also played by Franco) is still running the bustling midtown bar, The High Hat. In the first episode, “The Camera Loves You”, he and longtime partner Abby (Margarita Levieva) reflect on development in the area. But business is still good enough — especially compared to other venues on The Deuce (ICYMI: Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, 42nd Street in Manhattan was often referred to as “Forty Deuce).”
In its third season and final season, intersectionality is key for HBO’s The Deuce, even though the term wouldn’t be coined for another four years. We see not two, not three, but often five or six angles colliding in the storytelling: We see cops enforcing NYC’s padlock law by arresting prostitutes and bartenders while simultaneously displacing these folks via shady real estate deals. We see the prostitutes diverging: some join neighborhood protests, chanting, “Porn is violence. Violence is porn,” while others move onto porn gladly, finding the trade safer than selling tricks on the street.
But the promise of Season 3, at least from the first three episodes, seems to be a real, nonjudgmental look at the AIDS scare: be it police officers and girls on the street, male and female, black and white, queer and straight, Wall Street, and 42nd street. The fear is everywhere.
The AIDS Scare Hits The Deuce: It’s probably only now that our society is even capable of doing this story with any semblance of justice. In the #MeToo era, we seem more willing to recognize people in shitty situations may not be entirely to blame for their circumstances. And that’s what one should hope to get from this season of The Deuce: the AIDS epidemic finally told with just a tiny bit of compassion.
Halfway through the second episode, “Morta di Fame”, it’s clear things aren’t going to end well for a number of inhabitants. Creator David Simon and his team of writers toss out hints at every corner: Bobby (Chris Bauer) is concerned with some sort of lump on his backside. Shay (Kim Director) can’t turn tricks because she’s sick (like check-into-St. Vincent’s-without-health-insurance sick). And while Vinnie’s protégé Paul (Chris Coy) successfully runs a gay bar, his boyfriend Todd (Aaron Dean Eisenberg) has make-up artists do his foundation … so they can cover the weird marks on his face.
None of these are good omens, but the suspense works, and the many-sides intentionality of the scripts keep it from ever feeling like A Very Special Episode. Simon and his team are trying to create art here, and a third of the way through the final season, it feels promising. But even if you can appreciate form reflecting reality (like six arcs representing the ubiquity of the issue), you often want to linger on a single one just a little longer.
At one point, Abby, Shay, and Loretta are joking over chicken soup in a hospital waiting room, and it’s this nice moment of girl-power camaraderie tinged with a streak of feminism (Abby and Loretta are always arguing about how to best stand up for women’s rights). In these gasps, it would be nice to have meditated with Abby for a little longer — a feeling this writer’s had since Season 1, really — but as with the previous seasons, we must get back to Vinnie and his mobster boss Rudy (Michael Rispoli). How is it that the mobster sequences continue to be the least interesting?
The Amateur Angle: Behind the camera, Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Lori (Emily Meade) still have flourishing porn careers. Eileen’s bumping heads with her producer, Harvey (David Krumholtz), because he wants to ditch her feminist erotica vision for something a little more commercial, but, hell, maybe she’s learned everything she needs to learn from him anyway? Lori, on the other hand, is freshly sober, but her brand is still hot enough that she’s able to book acting work by the time her car pulls out of the rehab center’s driveway.
Oh, but the times they are a-changin’. As if Eileen doesn’t have enough to worry about with Harvey, she’s also up against a new submarket: amateur porn. Vinnie and his gang have solved this by having pros like Melissa (Olivia Luccardi) fake naïveté in bed, but Eileen’s realizing that there are also people just buying their own camcorders and filming it themselves. Just as Robert Mapplethorpe photographed the male nude and dared to call it art, Eileen knows she’s doing something elevated. She just needs funding.
Lori, however, is a household name in 1985, and she wants her experience to be recognized. She doesn’t want, say, to have a corn cob stuck up her anus. She wants her gay-for-pay male costars to wear condoms. Needless to say, Lori is certainly getting the most Instagram-ready girl-power lines this season as she navigates crude directors and her money-minded manager. But it’s a little hard to celebrate when you remember she’s in 1985, and here in 2019, Vanity Fair just wrote a piece about a new job on Hollywood sex-scene sets: the intimacy coordinator. Find whatever solace you want in that: We’re starting to listen to the Loris of the world … just, you know, 30 years later.
The Final POV — Today: The Deuce has shined a light on the industry’s first porn stars. It’s given a voice to the many ladies who walked NYC’s streets in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s spun the cane back at their johns. It’s given us middle-management. It’s shown us the mob lords they serve. We’ve seen actors and artists. We have the moneymen. And we have the cops.
But the POV that really emerges in Season 3 is that, while The Deuce knows its a show about the ‘70s and ‘80s, it’s just as aware it’s coming on the scene amid pussy hats, Times Up buttons, and a bizarre uptick in handmaiden Halloween costume sales. The show likely didn’t intend to be launched into such a climate (after all, allegations against Franco threatened the reception of the show’s second season), but as it takes its final bow, it definitely knows where it landed.
Occasionally this self-awareness feels a little too on the nose. Eileen, thank god, seems to have finally met a halfway decent guy in Hank (Corey Stoll), a financier (*cough* 1 percenter *cough*), who is somewhat redeemable because he doesn’t instantly judge her line of work. But when he croons lines like, “Your story is intriguing, but it’s not everything,” the attentive viewer just has to know the line was hella workshopped. It feels of today, not of 1985, when someone would have been more likely to say, “You’re not your past,” or some other shit that meant well but implied transgressions. Divorcing sex from sin is just too new for us mortals.
Then you have Lori, whose entire presence in Season 3 as an actress who is being forced to “take one for the team” over and over, feels tailor-made for TV audiences that yearn for handmaidens to throw up middle fingers. I hope women stood up to the establishment. Knowing more than one strong woman myself, I’m almost certain they did. But also knowing history, I’m sure there were consequences.
The Verdict: While these moments of self-awareness may draw you out, the central plot of Season 3—that of Paul having to just assume he has the virus because he’s a gay man in NYC, of Shay’s sole means of making a dollar being the very thing sending her toward an early grave, of promising entrepreneurs that must face the fact a virus doesn’t really care if you’re straight or middle class or a nice enough guy—is prestige television at its finest. It’s also about consequences, too, but not in the way we’ve gotten used to today.
It’s about the kind of consequences you can never quite prepare for because the forces that produce the problem come from every conceivable angle. And that’s where The Deuce will lay in history: a show that told the New York story, compassionately and beautifully, from so many different perspectives. Maybe the protestors on the street didn’t quite have it right. Yes, porn is violence, and violence is porn. But it’s also financial freedom, personal autonomy, creative expression, a way out of addiction, or a way into it.
For the men and women of The Deuce, it was everything at once — and everyone was affected.
Where’s It Playing? The final season of The Deuce premieres Sunday, September 8th at 9 pm EST.