In The Deuce, the 1970s talks to 2017

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. 

Netflix’s Disjointed is just that

In the first episode of Netflix’s Disjointed, which debuted on Netflix on August 25th, Ruth (Kathy Bates) laments about the ways in which the spirit of marijuana has changed since her cannabis-activist heyday to to the present day, in which she finds herself with a son, Travis (Aaron Moton), wants to turn her healing business into the “Wal-Mart of pot.”

 

“I spent my entire life fighting the man. The last thing I want to do is become the man,” Ruth says about the prospect of becoming a big-business Goliath peddling a product that was once “radical,” and now is just a “commodity.”

 

Ruth’s observation that selling medicinal hemp after years of fighting for the right to do so contradicts the prospect of becoming a big, greedy industry mirrors a contradiction at the heart of the show. A three-camera sit-com with a laugh track and a sound stage-the last bastion of truly broadcasted television, made to appeal to the widest audience possible–like showrunner Chuck Lore’s network hits, How I Met Your Mother and Big Bang Theory–Disjointed, while constantly asserting itself as a sitcom finds its premise in marijuana. It’s mass culture, or at least itss image and format, using counter culture as its main backdrop, and the mismatch never quite becomes more convincing. 

 

It’s this contradiction that makes Disjointed exactly as the title might suggest. Nods and winks to the stoners watching at home never seem at home in the ham-fisted and overly choreographed pace of a sit-com. Lorre has suggested that the jokes might play better if the viewer is high: punchlines seem to come a few beats after their set-up, absurdities and lost half-thoughts make up a large portion of the laugh lines, and some of the show comes in the format of a by-stoners-for-stoners YouTube vlog–”Dank and Dabby.”

 

Perhaps it’s true that cannabinoids seem to render otherwise strained grabs for laughs into reasonably funny jokes and witticisms–perhaps the best joke in the first episode comes when Travis says that equating marijuana to meth and crack is like comparing “apples to… meth and crack”–consistently clever and well-written comedies also have the capacity to draw laughs from a stoned audience. Disjointed biggest failure is its insistence on leaning on the supposition that it’s audience will be easy to amuse.

 

Disjointed also feels about two years too late to have the fresh and daring edge it wants to have. Weeds attempted to bring the same subject matter to the silver screen almost a decade ago, and while Disjointed’s impulses are more comedic that the anti-heroine, crime-driven Showtime hit, the ghost of Weeds still hovers in Disjointed like a cloud of smoke. Meanwhile, marijuana has been legalized either recreationally or medically in over half the states of the union. Disjointed succeeds at delivering a marijuana-based narrative precisely when one might expect the sitcom world to notice the change in tides, and not a moment sooner.

 

The sitcom sensibilities aren’t exclusively incompatible with the pothead premise, though. Ostensibly, Lorre couldn’t do away with the constraints created by commercial breaks in his exodus from CBS to Netflix. Disjointed features breaks in the action for fake commercials that are often the shows best jokes: a Lay’s™ commercial comprised only of one, long shot of couch potatoes munching on the stuff lazily lingers for hilariously too-long, a commercial for the Colorado weed industry that convincingly lampoons Budweiser and Marlboro commercials shows where the marijuana industry might lead.

 

Disjointed makes use of another type of break: animated shorts. While some viewers might not like the collage-effect of so many styles and forms overlapping in an otherwise straightforward show, the animated sequences are what Disjointed succeeds at most.

 

In the first episode, the dispensary security guard, Carter (Tone Bell), looks off into the distance before viewers are catapulted into an animated dramatization of the a day in the brain of a someone post-traumatically stressed. While images that morph into other images in a psychedelic frenzy on the screen, a spoken word poem describes a figure “scanning his periphery for targets only he can see,” and who is “shattered by shrapnels.” When Carter acquiesces to the idea of using marijuana to soothe is PTSD symptoms in a later episode, an amination imagines marijuana as a god-like figure that enters the body and grabs at the synapses in the brain, electrifying cerebral activity in vivid color.

 

The almost avant-garde addendums to the otherwise played-out sit-com structure is enough to keep a viewer interested for several episodes, but performances fall flat. Kathy Bates, one of the greatest actresses of her generation, fails to delight in Disjointed, never quite mastering the comedic timing such that the laugh track, instead of her performance, signals that the audience was meant to find an anteceding line funny, and too many of her jokes hinge on the uncanny novelty of an old and grey lady saying words like “fuck” and “penis.” Elizabeth Alderfer’s Olivia, a dispensary employee, seems to be doing a performance of a bad sitcom performance. Dougie Baldwin, who plays the store’s grower, Pete, performs as if he eschewed ever once smoking pot himself in researching the role, favoring, instead, PSA and after-school special style warnings as to marijuana’s ability to turn its users into dumb dullards.

 

If Lorre’s venture to the streaming platform accomplishes anything, it’s Lorre finally rendering a diverse cast on screen, in contrast to the loaves of white bread the casts of his previous shows resemble. Disjointed gives us some characters that seem like one’s we’ve not yet seen: a nerdy, half-jewish, half-black stoner who holds an MBA; a black Iraq veteran who suffers from PTSD but avoids reefer; an Asian woman who quit the prospect of medical school to smoke pot all day, an inversion of the model-minority trope that the character simultaneously arrests and challenges.

Disjointed does succeed at managing a likeness to marijuana at its very core: you can easily binge it, but, even though it might occasionally make you giggle, mostly it just makes you tired.