The Deuce’s trailer proves HBO understands the show’s central conceit: Sex sells. Previews for the new seventies-era series, which officially premiered Sunday night, promise Cadillacs, fur coats, and flashing theater district marquees in excess. Set to the euphoric beat of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up,” you glimpse snappy one-liners, entrepreneurial spirit—and, oh yeah, plenty of skin. But what creators George Pelecanos and David Simon (The Wire, Treme) actually offer viewers is a ballsy bait and switch: a complex exploration of objectification.
While the story of the commodification of sex in the seventies is one we’ve perhaps seen before, what’s notable about The Deuce is how it was produced—as a joint effort between male and female storytellers. Multiple perspectives are apparent throughout, giving viewers a nuanced look at the high stakes of the sex industry microcosm that existed then in Times Square. It shows us, frankly and in graphic but not glorifying detail, the economic and cultural shifts that led to pornography’s legalization and entry into mainstream American life. The eight-part series lays out an expense sheet: Yes, sex sells, and this is what it costs our cities and ourselves, penny by every single tarnished penny.
Sharing a name with 42nd Street (between Broadway and 8th), the show features Vincent Martino (James Franco), a struggling bar manager trying to pay off the gambling debts of his twin brother, Frankie (also Franco), and Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a prostitute intent on surviving the hustle without a pimp. The Deuce pinballs between intersecting stories of “working girls,” pimps, cops, and mob men doing business in the dog-eat-dog neighborhood. (Warning: some spoilers below.)
Our first clue that the show may not be what the promos teased is the music. A departure from the trailer’s “Move on Up,” the show’s title sequence is set to Mayfield’s warning cry “If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.” In The Deuce’s world, everyone is for sale. In scene after scene, characters explain The Deuce’s economics: who’s selling, who’s buying, who’s in power, and who’s out of it. Viewers expecting a slick, soft-core romp will be shocked by this brutal crash course in crude consumerism.
In an insightful New York Times interview, writer Dan Berry says what we see in this new series is a rather direct response to criticism of the “gratuitous” and “violent” portrayal of women in other HBO franchises, Game of Thrones and Westworld. Simon defends the show’s unadorned portrayal of prostitution and pornography, saying: “If you allude to this in ways that clean it up, you’re not dealing with the fact that not only was labor marginalized and misused, but that the product itself was the laborer. . . . Human beings were the product.”
Thanks in part to the history The Deuce outlines, we’re very used to seeing sex sensualized on screen. But here, turned tricks and porn flicks aren’t framed for titillation. Instead, the show highlights the transaction—this is how the business works—and the provider’s emotional reaction—this is how she feels about it. Often, she feels nothing. The lack of aesthetic softening makes the season a grueling, albeit honest, watch.
The few times sex scenes are shot in a more glamorized way, it’s when the partnering is for pleasure, not profit. Twice, Abby (Margarita Levieva), a literature student turned barmaid, quips about consensual sex: “If it weren’t so much fun, it would be ridiculous.” But even the show’s romantic pairings have their own absurd power plays at work, as couples balance longing for connection with more concrete needs: information, money, a job. The show seems to be asking: Is there even such a thing as truly free love?
These rare rendezvous aside, nudity is shown for reality, not arousal. There’s a whole lot of full-frontal male nudity and many naked women’s bodies as well, but The Deuce’s portrayal of bodies of both sexes is generally matter-of-fact and plot-driven. Nudity aside, The Deuce is doing more than most shows for gender parity. Although the creators are male, the cast is roughly half female, and half of the episodes were directed by women. Its commitment to multiple points of view on and off screen is commendable. After all, the show isn’t telling the story of one man. Or one woman. It’s looking at an entire ecosystem.
This may be partially the result of the show’s intentional efforts to include more women in the storytelling. Gyllenhaal took an active role as a producer for the show, all the while turning in a best-of-career performance. Gyllenhaal told the Daily Beast, “I felt like it was fair to ask for a guarantee that I would be a part of the conversation about what story we were telling and who Candy was, particularly because I knew I’d have my clothes off all the time and I wanted to use my body but also my mind.”
The female-directed pilot wastes no time getting to the point. Abby (the NYU literature student) challenges Vincent (the barkeep) when he outfits his waitresses in leotards and hose.
“Have you ever wondered what it’s like for them to be objectified?” Abby asks him.
“What’s that?” Vincent replies.
“Treating a person like a thing.”
Don’t say The Deuce didn’t warn you what the next seven episodes were going to be about. As the Hollywood Reporter quotes Simon, “We’re interested in what it means when profit is the primary metric for what we call society.”
In arc after arc, we see characters declare their final offers—what they won’t do, who they won’t be—then bargain down when the price gets high enough. The show starts with the blatant sale of skin but quickly draws parallels to the more subtle ways we commodify each other. We’re forced to wonder why The Deuce’s characters see themselves as products—and undervalued products at that. We wonder what they see when they look in the mirror, a normally cliche visual motif put to strong thematic use here. Do they see a person? A price tag? Or just a lack of better options?
Eileen (Gyllenhaal), who goes by Candy when she’s working, sees a way out of the life after being on her first porn set. She gets curious about the lighting, the camera. So she takes the director, Harvey (David Krumholtz), to lunch.
“I want to make movies,” she tells him. They talk about changing porn laws, and she picks up on the economics of the growing industry quickly. “It’s America, right? When do we ever leave a dollar for the other guy to pick up?” That’s the smart Eileen in the trailer. But seconds later, we see her hide her crumpling face when Harvey says he can’t give her a production job. But, hey, she’s pretty; she’d “make a nice picture” if she wants to perform once he gets the money together for a new film. She wants to be Eileen. He wants her to be Candy.
Just like Eileen, all of The Deuce’s characters are trapped in an economic system that dehumanizes them and limits their potential. And the system’s power is in its invisibility. Anyone who tries to outline it is likely to be ignored, bribed, or hushed up. Using the dawn of porn culture in the 1970s as a case study, The Deuce drags the dark secrets of uber-capitalism into high-noon light where we can see them. It’s not pretty, but it’s effective.
In the closing montage of the season, we hear Ray Charles croon lyrics in “Careless Love”:
“Once was blind, but now I see, love made a fool of me.”
Be ready: The Deuce will leave you blinking at the aftereffects of its flashbulb illumination. You’ll recognize parallels in today’s modern porn industry. You’ll see The Deuce's shadows in today’s consumerist culture that reduces us to our profiles, sorts potential partners by selfies and a swipe of the thumb, and encourages performative relationships via never-ending photo streams. The Deuce says objectification is everywhere. Are we choosing it, too?
Photo Credit: HBO