“Deuce” season 2 depicts a problematic, exploitative 1970s New York

September 28, 2018

“The Deuce” is the sleaziest thing I’ve seen since 1974’s “Chinatown.” It’s an HBO series set in 1977 in New York City—back before big money moved back into the city. The show is about exploitation; it is about the systems, institutional or otherwise, that people have set up for taking advantage of one another. And porn, too.

Now in its second season, the biggest controversy around the show is that James Franco is still acting in it after he was accused by five women of “inappropriate or sexually exploitative behavior.” Franco has denied the allegations, but, still, it has cast a pallor over the show.

David Simon, one of the creators of “The Deuce,” told Rolling Stone that he’d “checked with all my fellow producers and other personnel. We have no complainant or complaint or any awareness of any incident of concern involving Mr. Franco. Nor has HBO been approached with any complaint. In our experience, he was entirely professional as an actor, director and producer.” In addition, Simon detailed hiring an “intimacy coordinator,” someone whose job was “to facilitate the filming of simulated sex and intimacy in such a way that we’re protecting the emotions and the dignity of everybody who’s involved.”

Even if nothing happened on set, Franco’s still in the show, and his presence after such allegations, is, at the very least, uncomfortable. It’s an odd case because most of the show’s characters are presented as inherently problematic: Vincent, one of the twins Franco plays, profits off of a brothel he runs with his brother-in-law—his brother, Frankie, runs “Show Land,” a live peep show that “innovated” by removing the plexiglass separating clients from the nude dancers inside.

Both Franco characters profit off exploiting women’s bodies—they’re problematic and deeply flawed. The issue is furthered when we’re asked by the show to root for them. Is it possible to care about a character who is doing bad things? A character played by an actor who has allegedly done bad things too? Where do we draw the line?

“The Deuce” is not a show about happy endings. We see the vulnerable at the bottom of the social hierarchy being exploited—sex workers, many of them of color, being abused and manipulated into lives of servitude, the money from their work going to the men who’ve created the systems of imprisonment. “The Deuce” shows how the sausage is made and pulls no punches in doing so. Welcome to the meat grinder.

Vincent and Frankie—Franco’s characters—are deeply implicated in this system. They’re problematic characters, but perhaps problematic doesn’t necessarily exclude sympathetic. “The Deuce” eschews a good/bad binary—because life isn’t like that. We all play parts—willing or otherwise—in a terrible, exploitative system, and there’s a lot of gray area. As shows like “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” have demonstrated, it’s possible to be invested in a character, even if you are wholly repulsed by most of the things that they do.

“The Deuce” is not just James Franco. I think it would be a shame to let the narratives swirling around him drag down the whole show. The show depicts a variety of experiences: prostitutes, pimps, porn stars, a gay nightclub owner trying to extricate himself from the mob, an African American detective fighting against the corrupting influence of the NYPD—all are given equal consideration and empathy.

Chief among them is Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays Candy, a prostitute-turned-porn-producer trying to make feminist art in an industry concerned only with fulfilling the male gaze. I care about Candy, but, because this is “The Deuce,” I know things can’t possibly end well.

Sprawling and gritty, the show has the characteristics of a dense crime novel. This makes sense given the history of series co-creator David Simon, who started out as a journalist working the police beat for the Baltimore Sun.

On an episode by episode basis, things tend to drag. It seems tailor built for the streaming era—stories take a long time to get going, and the second episode of the most recent season just seems to end. However, I’m able to overlook pacing issues because, to me, the world, the characters and the writing are so strong that it keeps drawing me back in.

But I have to ask myself as I watch this show—why is watching the problematic exploit the vulnerable amidst a 70s backdrop so entertaining? I think it’s partly a testament to the writing: The show is filled with flawed, sympathetic characters struggling (or thriving) against an amoral world.

If you enjoyed—perhaps not the right word—if you appreciated Simon’s earlier series “The Wire,” then I’d recommend “The Deuce.” It’s not nearly as groundbreaking, though the ideas, a boots-on-the-ground examination of the many systems of exploitation America operates and the frustrating inability to exact meaningful change still very much resound today. It’s just as depressing, but this time, there’s disco.

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