In the second-season premiere of The Deuce, airing on HBO on Sept. 9, sex worker-turned-porn director Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) shows a cut of her latest film to her collaborator, Harvey (David Krumholtz). The film shows a man penetrating a woman who lies on her back, her eyes closed in ecstasy. There’s a quick cut to a ceiling fan; then the face of a different man; then back to the woman. The cuts come faster and faster — in between the sex itself, there are shots of wild animals sprinting across plains, a pot boiling over, a hand squeezing the juice from an orange. “It’s the road to an orgasm,” Eileen explains to a baffled Harvey; this is what it feels like from a woman’s perspective. But Harvey reminds Eileen that they’re making porn, not art, and they’re making it for men: “They don’t want to be in a woman’s head.”
The first season of The Deuce, created by David Simon and George Pelecanos, was set among the world of pimps and prostitutes, massage parlors and peep shows, in Times Square at the dawn of the 1970s. The second, which jumps forward to 1977, explores the burgeoning pornographic film industry. Like Netflix’s GLOW, about a 1980s cable wrestling show, The Deuce is, at its best, about women creating art in a system that requires endless compromise — juicing what they can from an industry that sees them as means to an often sticky end.
Again, Gyllenhaal is the main draw here, turning in a career-best performance, though the emphasis on film makes The Deuce’s sophomore season more self-reflexive and more focused than the first. For some, the idea of directing fuck films might not inspire awe. But for Eileen, aka Candy, her nom de porn, it means calling the shots. For once, she gets to dictate the terms of desire. It’s not a tawdry exercise in debasement; it’s a glimpse into a whole new world, and acceptance into a new kind of community. “Who would have thought the most boring part is the fucking?” she muses.
This season, we learn how the, ahem, sausage is made. For a woman who used to walk the streets, the show suggests, making these films might even be better than sex. In the season premiere, the camera cuts between bar owner Vincent (James Franco) and his activist girlfriend, Abby (Margarita Levieva), having sex in bed, and Eileen watching a new cut of her latest film. When the couple is finished, Vincent reaches for a cigarette; when Eileen’s movie is done, she does the same.
Simon created The Wire and co-created Treme and Show Me a Hero, shows about the Baltimore drug trade, post-Katrina New Orleans and a public-housing crisis in Yonkers. The Deuce, too, makes a study of a sprawling system — how it functions (or doesn’t), who benefits and who is exploited. In the second season, some of these power dynamics begin to shift. Sex workers like Lori (Emily Meade) have more clout on film than on the streets, and her growing celebrity threatens the authority of her domineering pimp, C.C. (Gary Carr). Darlene (Dominique Fishback) also finds a measure of independence in her film work, even as this new scene gives her more common ground with her pimp, Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe), who decides he wants to be in pictures, too. When she tells Larry the white girls on set make more money than she does, he confronts the director — who informs Larry that there’s simply less demand for black performers in porn. “It’s not racism,” the director claims, with a fairy-tale excuse that the non-porn industry has also been using basically up until Black Panther took a sledgehammer to it. “It’s economics.”
As porn seeps closer to mainstream society, it becomes a bigger problem for the police. Luke Kirby plays Gene Goldman, an official from Mayor-elect Ed Koch’s office attempting to work with the NYPD to clean up the Deuce, the seedy strip of 42nd Street between 8th and 9th avenues. Officer Chris Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) views Gene’s quest with skepticism — half the cops on the beat are taking a cut from the Mob, which owns most of the bars and massage parlors in Times Square. But Alston’s boss, Captain McDonagh (Ed Moran), explains that the administration has reason to be serious about the crackdown: Koch wants to eradicate all those cash businesses that don’t report their income. “It’s not morals,” McDonagh says, echoing the porn director. “It’s money.”
Still, The Deuce’s writers and directors aren’t just interested in pornography’s economic effects. The new season tracks the mounting pornification of everything — a process spurred by the relaxing, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, of state and federal obscenity laws — not least of all, the mind. When Officer Alston picks up his nurse girlfriend from work, he admits he just wanted the chance to see her in uniform. She asks if he’s been reading Penthouse, but he admits that what did it for him was the hospital scene in Foxy Brown. Eileen tells Harvey she’s not “doing any more Daddy-knows-best scenes,” to which Harvey replies, “It’s someone’s fantasy.” Later, she decides to make a feature-length sex film based on Little Red Riding Hood — an adult, “urban” version of the fairytale, set in New York City. When Larry shows up on set to observe one of Darlene’s film shoots, he assumes “D.P.” refers to the director of photography, until an actor corrects him: it means double penetration. “So you fuck her twice?” Larry asks, confused. Porn is going places even a pimp can’t picture.
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The Deuce carefully walks the line between condoning and condemning much of what it depicts; its writers are less interested in preaching than in creating believable characters and showing viewers what it feels like to live in their world. Some of those characters, like a stripper who comes to Abby for help with a labor-dispute issue, find liberation in the blatant expression of their sexuality; others find only violence and denigration. And, of course, the people who really profit off this brave new world are white men in suits.
Like GLOW — and Mad Men— The Deuce is a show about how things used to be, but it’s also, inadvertently, a show about how little things have changed. The number of female directors working in Hollywood today compared to men continues to be dismal; exploiting or harassing women at work continues to yield few consequences for men. (That Includes Franco, an executive producer of The Deuce, whom five women accused of “inappropriate or sexually exploitative behavior,” as reported by the Los Angeles Times in January.)
And, like those other series, The Deuce suggests that systemic barriers keeping women from achieving their full potential at work are relics of the past. The show’s writers are not totally blind to this irony; in one scene, at a porn awards ceremony in Los Angeles, the camera catches a woman describing a film to her companion: “It’s a parody of Westworld, but instead of cowboys and Indians, it’s sex robots.” She’s referring to the 1974 movie Westworld, but this porn version suggests the series you can catch on Sunday nights on HBO. It’s fitting that just a couple of weeks before The Deuce’s new season is set to premiere, HBO has gutted its late-night division, home to soft-core porn docu-series like Real Sex and Taxicab Confessions. “There hasn’t been a strong demand for this kind of adult programming,” an HBO rep told IndieWire, “perhaps because it’s easily available elsewhere.” The Deuce immerses us in the question of how we got here.
The Deuce premieres September 9 on HBO.