With Game of Thrones over for an undetermined inter-season break, HBO is tasked with delivering a new sexy, addicting, costume-drama. If the pilot of The Deuce, which finds a cast of characters in 1970s New York before the explosion of the pornography industry, is any indication they may have done just that.
The Deuce, which premieres on September 10th, though HBO Go and HBO Now subscribers were treated to an advanced release, capitalizes on nostalgia just enough to make it even more effective and wrenching when it pulls the curtain back on it’s obsessively-built world to reveal what exactly we’re yearning for when we revise the reality 1970s Time Square.
But nostalgia–or whatever nostalgia becomes when one renders an unrecoverable past to critique it rather than relish in it–isn’t the driving force of the show. It’s equally as much the way the present crashes into the past that makes The Deuce even more delectable. George Pelecanos’ latest project may render a Times Square in which bright bulbs have yet to be replaced by digital screens and marquis lining the theater district, in which Giuliani era reforms have yet to convert the city from the mecca of sleaze to the heart of modern-day capitalism, but there are nonetheless intervening disruptions that connect The Deuce inexorably to our present.
It’s the details that serve to show just how little, rather than how much, New York City has changed. Not only does Frankie (James Franco) ascend the same subway steps familiar to a New Yorker of the new millennium: when pimps Chris (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.) and Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe) troll the Port Authority looking for new prostitutes to turn out, they tell a soon-to-be recruit, Lori (Emily Meade) that “everybody here came from somewhere else,” an axiom perhaps recognizable to anyone aware of the transplant-culture that continues to define the five boroughs.
The Deuce’s relevance isn’t relegated to winks to Big Apple dwellers, either. Without belaboring the connection between present-day media and present-day political dynamics, an NYU student, Abby (Margarita Levieva) asks Frankie, who runs a Times Square bar, if he think his waitresses like being objectified (his waitresses, just earlier in the evening, underwent a uniform change that now sees them in black tights and leotards). She then has to explain what objectification means, and while it’s historically accurate that a university student in the seventies might be preoccupied with issues of objectification, her call for a world in which women are less sexualized has scarcely departed from discourse in the four decades since.
Abby’s query about the waitresses being objectified falls on deaf ears. We know, from promotional materials, that all the pimps, prostitutes, barmen, cops, and students in the show are about to become embroiled in the burgeoning American porn industry, but Abby, the ambitious if not idealistic co-ed has no idea what’s about to go down in the metropolis.
It’s perhaps the subjugation of women, upon which Abby briefly attempts to intervene, that The Deuce is best at elucidating. The show is driven substantially by the life and times of a network of prostitutes. Many of them work for pimps Chris and Larry, but one of them, Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), works for herself, proudly declaring that no one will “make money from my pussy but me.”
Candy has to work a little harder and be a little more careful on the streets by herself, she says, but Candy’s empowerment and independence doesn’t seem merely rare in the context of prostitution: it calls attention to the probability that few women in the “straight world” are working for themselves without some man in authority, somewhere, skimming from the top of the fruits of a woman’s labor, or functioning financially without “giving it up” to someone.
The pimped out girls, like Lori, Darlene (Dominique Fishback) and Barbara (Kayla Foster) are, meanwhile, getting abused both by their clients and the men that hustle them. Barbara’s position as the “bottom bitch” is threatened when Lori comes to town, causing her to double down on her attempts to seduce her pimp, Larry. When she tells Larry she doesn’t want to work in the rain, preferring instead to spend some alone time with him. Larry complies, but mutilates her while she screams in pain, announcing he doesn’t care if she’s tired, wet, or cold: she’s there to make Larry money.
What is confounding about Barbara is that she appears genuinely and desperately in love with her pimp, despite the fact that he’s sleeping with throngs of other women and abusing her. We learn that Barbara is fleeing a small town where she was likely treated worse by an overbearing and perhaps conservative family. It’s here that The Deuce highlights that prostitution isn’t so unlike any other economic arrangement available to women in the 1970s, precisely concurrent with women’s lib, which will but hasn’t quite yet opened up occupational opportunities to women. Like a husband or a father in the early 70s, a pimp may provide material comforts, security, and refuge from even-worse families; and, like a husband or a father in the early 70s, they may additionally leverage abuse and control without consequences. For a woman on the streets, same as in the straight world, one’s body and sexuality must be exchanged for money to survive.
Pelecanos The Wire similarly grappled with power and subjugation in structures that seem indistinguishable from one another regardless of if we’re discussing the straight world or the world of crime. The Deuce may be set in 70s New York, but above all, it shows the timelessness and lack of site-specificity of money, power, dominance, and subjugation is the real focus of the show.