World-building is a topic that tends to come up with science-fiction sagas or fantasy epics, but “The Deuce” is one of the most impressive examples in recent memory. Not only did the HBO drama immediately immerse audiences in a historical facsimile of 42nd Street, Manhattan, with XXX theaters and denizens of the night aplenty, but creators David Simon and George Pelecanos, alongside their producing partner Nina Noble and a top-notch crew lead by production designer Scott Dougan, replicated the so-called Deuce’s transformation over three separate time periods: first in 1971, then in the high-end porn days of 1977, and finally in the turbulent ’80s, specifically 1985, as the neighborhood is about to be transformed.
In terms of sheer artistic value, these touches can’t be praised highly enough. “The Deuce” isn’t breaking the budget, compared to other Home Box Office hits, but it’s a stunning, transportive experience each and every episode. More importantly, this mesmeric atmosphere allows Simon and Pelecanos to implement an unusual storytelling structure; a time capsule approach that chronicles the most important moments for its story and characters, like anything else, but that doesn’t promise immediate thrills, constant conflict, or your traditional episodic build toward a crescendo.
Life just goes on in “The Deuce,” like it does for so many of the creators’ previous series. But the development of these people, their businesses (legal and less so), as well as the culture they shape presents gripping human drama — so much so that, even though it’s clear why “The Deuce” is ending in Season 3, it feels like a show that could go on forever. And you wish it would.
It’s 1985. Porn production is starting to head west, where better working conditions and experienced filmmakers are creating a more prosperous environment than the ramshackle, mob-run streets of New York. Moreover, the films themselves aren’t as adventurous as they once were; the type of arthouse erotica Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) specialized in during the late ’70s has been deemed too expensive and too high-minded for the desired clientele. And, despite Candy’s insistence and continued efforts, that clientele is still seen as men.
So the ever-looming, self-serving question emerges again: What do men want? For Vince, it’s disco, dancing, and a general club-like atmosphere. He’s expanding and renovating the High-Hat to fit the times, but the regressive nature of the porn business (if not the ’80s overall) is mirrored in his relationships. Exhausted by his open partnership with Abby (Margarita Levieva, still a stand-out among an excellent ensemble), a worn-out Vincent starts looking back at his ex-wife and domestic life with renewed fondness. Will he retreat to the suburbs, tired of working the angles to make an extra buck in the big city?
Perhaps, especially if his brother keeps living dangerously. Frankie, the troublemaking twin of the two, has found a bit of domestic comfort all his own, but that doesn’t keep him from hustling. Still gambling, the lovable lunk has expanded his side business to include drug dealing — a definitive no-no for mafia boss Rudy (Michael Rispoli), and a big contributor to the fallout on the Deuce, which has caught the eye of Gene Goldman (Luke Kirby), a politico working with Detective Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) to clean up the neighborhood so big, legitimate business can come through.
The flawless integration of these storylines can be seen throughout the rest of the subplots, as well. Paul (Chris Coy) must face down the AIDS epidemic that’s sweeping through his bar, community, and country. Bobby (Chris Bauer) gets freaked out by the very possibility he could be infected, while condoms become a more vital part of porn, prostitution, and hooking up. Abby tries to take on a vocal advocacy post, fighting for the rights of everyone she knows (as well as a burgeoning artists’ group), while Lori (Emily Meade) makes a go of things in the San Fernando Valley, getting the royal treatment on sets out west compared to what was being forced upon her on the opposite coast.
Still, the improved working conditions don’t speak to improved onscreen quality. Candy, creatively, is hurting. Her dreams of transitioning out of porn and into legitimate filmmaking are dimming along with the lights on 42nd Street. Her conversations with Harvey (David Krumholtz) are elevated, as they take in new Kurosawa at the Film Forum, but come back down to Earth when it’s time for business. How can Candy find artistic fulfillment as the porn she worked so hard to hike up is turning back to the smut once hidden away in dark movie houses?
These are the questions left to ponder over the last five episodes of “The Deuce,” but viewers should know better than to expect definitive answers. However the show ends, these fully fleshed-out characters will fight on, in one way or another, bending to the turning tide of American culture just like the rest of us. In that way, “The Deuce” could go on forever — it would be just as engrossing to watch Candy & Co. adapt to the DVD era, then the internet, and beyond, while New York’s Times Square transforms into a mega-corporate tourist destination, New Year’s Eve mainstay, and general point of consumerist mockery.
But Simon and Pelecanos have told their story. Through “The Deuce,” viewers can see how porn culture infiltrated our society, reenforcing everything from the male gaze to toxic masculinity, creating advertising language and changing the way we think about sex. A changing neighborhood mirrors a changing nation, along with the beautiful and troubled people within it. What’s next? We know what comes after 1985, but what comes after “The Deuce,” that’s up to us.
“The Deuce” Season 3 premieres Monday, September 9 at 10 p.m. on HBO.