“Reel to reel is living verite”: The End of The Deuce, and other things

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I’ve had the final scene of HBO series The Deuce stuck in my head for the past week. (Spoilers obviously follow.) After spending the rest of the season in the mid-1980s, we abruptly jump forward to 2019. Vincent (James Franco), one of the series’ central characters, is sitting in a Manhattan hotel room. We see that the show’s subject matter — pornography but also bartending in New York — has become thoroughly mundane and regulated, just part of the room service.

Disgusted, Vincent leaves to walk around Times Square — the modern Times Square, full of tourists and wealth, not the sleazy district in which he once thrived. A cover of “Sidewalks of New York”, a turn-of-the-20th-century ballad covered by members of Blondie (who also contribute the season’s opening theme, “Dreaming”) plays. As he walks, Vincent sees glimpses of people he once knew, people that are long dead and gone but appear to him just as they once did. They are all buried beneath the square’s hyper-modernity, but remain a part of its foundation, haunting the sterile surface.

In a way, this scene embodies everything that David Simon, George Pelecanos and the other creators of The Deuce hoped to do with the show. The series reveals the psychogeography of both New York and the modern sex industry, the accumulation of stories remembered and forgotten that makes up a place. Even in Times Square, designed to banish any sense of history or tragedy (one prominently-featured window is a nonsensical sequence of letters), history still reappears.

Simon and his collaborators’ approach, ranging from the epic The Wire to smaller pieces like Show Me A Hero, has always been to translate a kind of sociological history to television. The shows star individuals, but they are individuals who are generally not in control of their own fate, instead being buffeted from place to place by prevailing social forces. This unfolds in the finale of The Deuce too, in almost didactic fashion: characters talk about the political wrangle of the AIDS crisis, real estate interests, and technological changes which all bring about the end of quasi-legal sex work in Manhattan. And so, despite all the memorable characters, perhaps it’s best that the city itself has the last word.

Perhaps the most important character for this sociological approach is Maggie Gyllenhall’s Eileen, also known as Candy. Eileen represents the best-case scenario for women who became involved with pornography in the 1970s and 80s. She’s able to move behind the camera, becoming a director. She describes her work as “femme erotica”, trying to fight the patriarchal nature of the genre. Out of everyone producing film, she’s the only one who seems likely to make anything worthwhile.

In the second season, we saw Eileen create a feminist-minded, cinematic porno movie, and it seemed to suggest the possibilities of the new medium. But by the mid-80s, everything has moved to VHS, and no one feels the need to dress up the sex with storylines and themes. Depressed by this shift, Eileen starts making a film about how women are exploited and objectified by a patriarchal society — not just sex workers, but waitresses, secretaries, and just about everyone else.

It’s a completely unpalatable message for porn, and the attempt to do the movie X-rated never quite comes together. We learn in the epilogue that Eileen did eventually finish the film, as a straight-up arthouse project. This choice reflects, I think, Simon’s distrust of genre elements, especially post-The Wire. Having watched an audience turn his sociological study of Baltimore into a font for quotes and memes seems to have pushed Simon even further from conventional plot satisfaction. (A similar thing happened to David Chase in the later seasons of The Sopranos, and to a lesser extent Vince Gilligan.) Audiences have responded accordingly.

I would suggest, then, that Eileen’s movie A Pawn in Their Game is a stand-in for The Deuce as text: an uncompromising, uncommercially bleak breakdown of social problems. Its fate, releasing in obscurity but being belatedly recognized as a masterpiece, is the closest thing to a happy ending Simon can imagine. A film, or a TV show, can’t change the world, but it can exist with integrity as its own little bubble of truth.

And yet, the third season of The Deuce continually calls into question Eileen’s integrity. In one scene, she attempts to screen Red Hot for a group of anti-pornography feminists, and none other than Andrea Dworkin admonishes her for putting a friendly face on the exploitation of women. Afterwards, Abby says that Dworkin is an asshole, but Eileen remarks that it’s something she needed to hear, and this seems to be the show’s position on the anti-pornography movement: unpleasant assholes, but not entirely off the mark in their assessment of the industry.

Perhaps the clearest case of Eileen’s failure is how she treats Lori, the star of Red Hot and would-be attraction of A Pawn in Their Game. Lori is at the inevitable end of her pornographic career, finding herself cast in rougher scenes and scrounging for extra money at local strip clubs. She’s looking for any kind of meaning outside of her life as a sex object, but Eileen is so determined to see that life as a positive that she tramples over Lori’s feelings. And so Lori kills herself, in one of the most bracing television scenes in a long while.

No matter how noble her intentions, Eileen is still implicated in a system of exploitation. This, too, can be read as The Deuce speaking about itself: Simon has been open about the set’s early difficulties shooting nudity and sex scenes respectfully, and of course there’s the miasma of allegations of exploitation surrounding star James Franco. And, no matter what its critique of capitalism, The Deuce is still ultimately part of the most bourgeois brand of telecom giant Time-Warner.

Even these compromises, the series suggests, are becoming increasingly untenable. The Deuce feels like the last remnant of the “golden age” sociological shows that dominated critics’ lists (if not ratings) in the 2000s and early 2010s. Like the titular New York neighbourhood, that era of television was a compromised institution, but one that allowed for the lives of working people and for occasional moments of true expression.

But television has been gentrified just as New York has, with gritty dramas replaced by expensive genre programming. (While the modern-day Vince is flipping channels, one can hear the theme song from Game of Thrones.) HBO has thus far shown loyalty and patience with Simon and company’s unsexy programming, but despite positive reviews The Deuce (like Treme and The Wire before it) hasn’t received much in terms of awards or ratings. Like most of the shows I’ve loved on HBO this past decade, it ended on Monday nights in obscurity. Most likely there’s some bean-counter at Time-Warner thinking that if Simon can’t make a hit about sex and crime with movie stars,he’s not going to make a hit about anything.

So when Vincent descends into the New York subway (another great, compromised system), perhaps this is a coda not just to the series but to realist, sociological television as a going concern. As the song winds down, the viewer is subsumed by not a social system but a mass of individuals. We get a glimpse of someone who might be Abby, and seems to now be a high-powered attorney. There will always be TV shows about people like her, and the trendy young people we see around her. But for a brief period, there were shows about the rest of us.

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