It’s a little disorienting to get back into The Deuce for its second season, which makes a five-year jump but doesn’t lose a step. One of the show’s defining traits is how fully integrated viewers become in the lives of the show’s many, many characters, and like with the first season, it takes a little time to reach that level of intimacy again. Five years is also a long time, and though change has happened, it appears to be hard-won. The most noticeable difference is the beginning of the end for the pimp-dominated era of street-level prostitution, and the rise of “massage parlors” and adult films. Those changes have also given the women who provide these services a new level of agency, although it’s rarely that simple.
With that shift comes others, most notably that the show itself has put its women at the center. While things are still gritty in The Deuce, it’s different than before. The Deuce itself is getting cleaned up, slowly (more on that in a minute), and the show is responding by shifting more to a female gaze. In an early episode, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Candy — now a director as well as an actress — makes an artistic film that employs quick cuts to a variety of images in order to visually simulate how a woman feels having an orgasm. The producer, Harvey Wasserman (David Krumholtz) looks at her in disbelief. “Where’s the fucking? This needs more fucking!”
That may well be the cry of some viewers as well, but The Deuce showed us in Season 1 that the nudity and sex acts it portrayed were not meant to be titillating. Mostly they’re clinical or comic, although occasionally there are moments of true intimacy between characters. But the most compelling part of David Simon and George Pelecanos’ investigation of every angle of life on the Deuce in 1977 is the show’s characters. In most of the four episodes available for review, almost nothing consequential happens plot-wise. There aren’t major twists or reveals or people needing to get from one place or another so something else can happen. It’s just about life. We are visitors looking in on the lives of a mobbed-up bar owner and his layabout brother (James Franco, in both cases), the punky club manager Abby (Margarita Levieva), the ambitious actress Lori (Emily Meade), the pimps CC and Larry Brown (Gary Carr, Gbenga Akinnagbe) finding their way in a changing world, and Candy, the series’ shining star who is galvanized to make art on her own terms.
It matters, deeply, that Lori still hasn’t left CC’s control even though he’s clearly holding her back. We want Chris Coy’s Paul to make a go of his own bar that’s not built with mob money. And seeing Darlene (Dominique Fishback) still earnestly reading a novel and taking night classes has as much emotional resonance as the biggest moments of Grand Guignol in other TV dramas. Perhaps the most shocking scene of these first episodes may be its quietest, when Candy makes a difficult decision to try and secure funding for her movie, and a myriad of shadows pass across her face during her mental deliberations. The shock is that Gyllenhaal wasn’t handed an Emmy right there on screen — it’s that masterful.
But with so many storylines, not everything lands as well as these examples. Lawrence Gilliard Jr. is particularly stilted as the patrolman-turned-homicide detective, who works on the outskirts of the story alongside Luke Kirby’s Gene Goodman, who plays a Koch administration official devoted to cleaning up the streets. Kirby is charming, but the series slows down when the focus leaves the women and the adult industry and turns instead towards some of the men, even in the case of Vincent and Frankie Martino, who remain affable but not particularly interesting. This is also true of the show’s look at mob connections and the cost of retaliations, which can feel like they belong in another series entirely.
However, it’s worth noting that the pimps have some of the best storylines of the new season. As they lose control of their women, they begin to seek their own fame either one camera or off. Both Carr and Akinnagbe are excellent in the way they portray the arrogance, hubris, and vulnerability of these men, and yet remain likable enough so that when they have a triumph, it feels fair. (They are also responsible, particularly Akinnagbe, for some of the most unexpectedly funny moments of the season so far).
Even as it has softened visually just a little, (though it’s dialogue is a crackling as ever), the show has certainly not lost its edge; the sounds of the city as ever-present (trucks backing up, catcalls, horns, people on the street), and it can often feel cold and unforgiving. Those spare, diegetic sounds keep things restless, serving as a constant reminder that these stories — and this show — is grounded in the streets. Even with the time jump, the changes and transitions with the characters happen slowly, and a lesser series would rush them for dramatic effect. But The Deuce keeps things both casual and real. Characters arrive and depart on their own terms, reminding us of how far they’ve come or how far they still need to go.
The Deuce Season 2 debuts on HBO September 9th.