October 30, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “The Deuce”


David Simon is unquestionably a pivotal figure in the history of contemporary TV, yet he’s never been associated with a mainstream hit.  From Homicide: Life On The Street to The Wire to Treme to Show Me A Hero, his work has been critically praised and sometimes honored, but viewers haven’t flocked to them on their initial airings.  That’s true as well with THE DEUCE (co-created with the novelist George Pelecanos, who’s been working with Simon since The Wire), which like all his work except Homicide found its home at HBO, where prestige counts as much as ratings.  Simon’s niche position may be due to his preference for incident and setting over conventional plot.  The first season of Homicide famously revolved around a murder that wasn’t solved, and most of the crimes on The Wire went unpunished.  Simon is more interested in the story behind the story than the story itself, and that makes his work difficult to describe and to attract viewers.

The Deuce was marketed by HBO as being the story of the rise of 1970s pornography, and that was as much of a throughline as anything else in the series, but Simon and Pelecanos’s vision was far wider than that.  The series encompassed the sex industry’s shift from streetwalking managed by black pimps to massage parlors and peep shows backed by white Mafia figures; the ambiguous ways in which sex work could be both empowering and brutal to women (and sometimes just plain boring); the business of police corruption; the timidity of newspapers; the political tides of 1970s Manhattan; and much more.  The Deuce sometimes spread itself thin trying to cover so much ground in 8 hours, and some characters were lost in the shuffle, while storylines that could have been a spine for another show became mere anecdotes.  Simon’s remarkable eye for detail, though, and the insight he and the other writers brought to their subject kept the series compelling.

In keeping with the house style, it wasn’t until the final 15 minutes of the season’s last episode (written by Simon and Pelecanos, and directed by Michelle MacLaren) that it began to feel like a season finale.  Much as Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon concluded with the premiere of Birth of A Nation, which would end the first iteration of Hollywood and usher in something new, The Deuce featured the premiere of Deep Throat, the first porn blockbuster and the beginning of a temporary “golden era” of sex films.  (To see what happened after that, watch Boogie Nights.)  The key character at the premiere was Candy (the superb Maggie Gyllenhaal), one of the show’s focal points, who in the course of the series shifted from independent hooker to a film director, albeit of porn.  It was as close as The Deuce came to an aspirational story.

The other focus of the season was Vincent (James Franco), who himself rose from bartender to a prosperous bar owner and front for massage parlors, although by the season’s end he was balking at his connection to the mob.  (Franco was excellent as Vincent, free from the mannerisms that sometimes dog his acting work, but casting him as identical twin brothers may have been one Franco too many, as his tough-guy Frankie was a more self-conscious creation.)  The canvas of The Deuce was vastly larger, though, encompassing prostitutes like the doomed Ruby (Pernell Walker) and cynical Lori (Emily Meade), pimps like Rodney (Method Man) and CC (Gary Carr), troubled cop Alston (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr), crusading journalist Sandra (Natalie Paul), liberated bartender Abby (Margarita Levieva), gay bartender Paul (Chris Coy), construction worker turned massage parlor honcho Bobby (Simon veteran Chris Bauer) and affable gangster Rudy (Michael Rispoli).  All of these figures and more were drawn with intelligence and sometimes contradictory layers.

Word has it Simon and Pelecanos have an ambitious plan in mind for The Deuce:  they see it as the story of Times Square rather than these particular characters, much in the way that The Wire shifted gears each season.  Season 2 (which has already been ordered) will apparently take place in the 1980s, and will follow the corporatization of Times Square, for better and for worse, and Season 3 a decade after that.  It’s unclear who from Season 1 will return, but the result will no doubt be disconcerting, just as Simon likes it.  Simon as as much of an auteur as any of the icons of the 1970s era themselves (The Deuce is particularly Altmanesque, not in terms of improvised dialogue but its adoption of place as protagonist), and he’s as uncompromising now as he’s been since he began.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."