Let's get this out of the way: What we have just witnessed was, hands down, the best episode of The Deuce yet. By a lot. Titled "Au Reservoir," it's funny, scary, sad, sexy and entertaining as hell from start to finish. How did this so-so show get so damned good so suddenly?
The answers may lie behind the scenes. This episode was directed by co-star James Franco, who previously helmed one of the series' better installments. Judging from his two turns in the driver's seat, he's got a knack for finding the warmth and humor in the characters and their plights; you can see the kind of actor he is reflected in the work he gets out of others.
Screenwriter Megan Abbott likely deserves the lion's share of the credit. Along with George Pelecanos, Richard Price and Lisa Lutz, she's part of the murderers' row of crime novelists who share the show's scripting duties. But her writing delivers in ways even the best bits of previous episodes never did.
For one thing, this episode was hilarious. A highlight reel would include the bit where Paul and Abby trick Frankie into taking Ashley on a date to the premiere party for a gay porn movie, Boys in the Sand. It doesn't take long for the enthusiastic heterosexual to figure out he's been had. "What the fuck is a vignette?" he asks, when confronted with the skin flick's wet-dream structure. "Lawrence of Arabia with vignettes and fuckin' ballsacks."
"Just a regular night for me," Ashley deadpans in response.
"Couldn't there be at least one girl in the sand?" he whines.
When he finally flees the theater while having something close to a penis-induced panic attack, Frankie gets ribbed about it. "Couldn't follow the plot," he jokes in return. "Guy was dreamin' about dick, and then, pfff, dick would appear," Candy explains. "I thought it was kind of artistic … but it was a lot of dick." Every line is a scream. Just as importantly, every punchline reveals the you-gotta-laugh attitude both characters have about sex, and themselves. (And these aren't even Ashley's funniest lines of the night: She tells Abby she's got a sister in the upstate New York town of Lackawanna whom she's never visited. "Why didn't you see her?" "… Lack o' wanna." Rimshot!)
Speaking of jokes, Eileen and her porn mentor Harvey got tons of 'em as they direct increasingly exhausted performers, including relative newcomer to the scene Lori. "I think they're hungry," the artist formerly known as Candy speculates. "You're the shop steward now?" her boss replies. "Hey, who's hungry?" she shouts at the actors, taking the initiatives. "I'm actually really very hungry," replies the male lead mid-thrust. She then replaces the puke-green sheets on the on-set bed with red ones, saying it's "a horny color – you ever seen a car ad?" "All of a sudden I'm working with Marshall McCluhan," Harv moans. When the dinner break doesn't do the trick, the director sighs with exhaustion: "I know it's been a long damn day, and fucking is the last thing anybody wants to do anymore…." All in a day's work!
Which leads to another of the episode's strengths: It's pretty hot. Before their final attempt at the scene, Eileen marvels at her star's body as she helps her get ready for the shoot. "All my life I wanted tits like that," she says, smiling. "Santa never delivered." Once the joyless humping commences, the veteran sees how she can get better performances out of the actors: by talking up just how sexy her protege really is. She coos and compliments from the sidelines. The sex suddenly gets genuinely steamy, even if it's all for show.
A follow-up scene later in the episode shows Lori reveling in her newfound glamour. She hogs one of the Times Square peeps, plunking quarter after quarter into the machine to watch herself; Franco's camera captures her face from inside the projector, the light of the film sparkling in her eyes. Eventually she taps the masturbator next to her to watch her in action; his awestruck realization that the woman in front of him is the same one onscreen clearly makes her day. "Could I get your autograph, Miss Monroe?" the shopkeeper hollers as she struts out of the store, feeling like a million bucks. Desire is a hell of a drug.
If we're belaboring the fun stuff here – and we could go on – that's just because it's been in short supply before. The episode also doubled as a tragedy, in which poor young Bernice completely breaks down under the pressure of the life; a procedural, in which honest cop Allston walks his new captain through the seedy police corruption of the area; and a tense thriller, in which Ashley quietly risks her life every moment she spends with her freinds instead of her vicious pimp C.C. (Raise your hand if you thought the way she loaned her red dress to the slumming college kid would give her location away somehow.)
In the same vein, the increasingly unlovable Reggie Love finally goes too far when he roughs up a woman whose friendship the towering diner owner Leon has come to value. When the flesh-peddler dares to pull her away from a plate of fresh-cooked food, the restaurateur calmly pulls out a gun, blows the guy away, calls the police himself and fixes his now-terrified customer a fresh cup of coffee. Then he calmly sits and waits for New York's finest to arrive. It's one of the great "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore" moments, Prestige-TV division, in recent memory.
The hour ends with Ashley successfully fleeing the city, tears in her eyes, a big "Welcome to New York" banner hanging in the background. It's a fitting end. That sign could just as well have said "Welcome to The Deuce." It's finally the show it should be.
Previously: The Mob Rules