The Deuce is back for a third and final season, and we’ve got a review of the premiere, “The Camera Loves You,” coming up just as soon as I tell you to see Repo Man…
Early in “The Camera Loves You,” Vince and Abby are walking home along the Deuce when the local criminal element forces them to duck into a porn store for shelter. Vince laments, “I remember when this place used to be respectable.” An amused Abby replies, “When was that?”
Welcome back to The Deuce, where the more things change, the more they stay the same — except for the ways in which they’re getting worse.
We jump ahead to the end of 1984. Disco and punk have given over to New Wave, just as Blondie’s “Dreaming” has replaced “This Year’s Girl” as the new theme song. Many of the hairstyles are new — or, in Bobby‘s case, the toupee is new — while family man Frankie is rocking the same pompadour he’ll likely have as an old man, assuming he lives that long. As the revised opening credits suggest, cocaine, home video, and the AIDS crisis are top of mind for characters in every corner of this ever-sprawling world — which now includes regular detours to the other side of the country, where Lori is just out of rehab, while she and Candy and Harvey converge at the CES convention in Las Vegas.
Though prostitutes still stroll the Deuce, the story has moved away from them and the pimps(*), focusing on the increasingly mainstream world of porn and the ways that vice butts up against big business. Crime on the Deuce seems worse — or maybe just more blatant — than ever, yet the enormous New York Marriott Marquis hotel is on the verge of opening, the crown jewel of Mayor Koch and Gene Goldman‘s plan to class up the neighborhood. To paraphrase a character from another show that David Simon and George Pelecanos worked on, the Deuce has become the thin line between heaven and here, and the money people very much want their version of heaven to push out everything on the other side of the line.
(*) This has the unfortunate side effect of eliminating most of the show’s African-American characters. It makes sense that this is where the story has gone — and I wouldn’t want to see, say, Darlene dragged back into the sex trade after she worked so hard to leave it — but it does feel a bit like The Deuce has undergone gentrification akin to what’s coming to its titular street under Giuliani in the Nineties.
Though we know that both the neighborhood and the porn industry will continue to evolve (in ways good and bad), this particular moment in time feels like a case of everything moving in circles. As Vince and Abby’s open relationship grows ever more open and less like a relationship, for instance, he finds himself falling back into bed with ex-wife Andrea. Lori gets out of rehab as the episode begins, and by the end, she’s doing lines of coke, as hungry for the high as we’ve ever seen her. The increasing ubiquity of VHS tapes and VCRs in American homes utterly transforms the porn industry, but the direct impact it has on our leading lady is to erase all the progress she’s made in crafting a different kind of adult film. As Harvey puts it bluntly, her feminist porn movies are “a niche product that I can no longer invest in.”
Every scene between Candy and Harvey in the premiere feels like Simon and Pelecanos reckoning with their place in the post-Game of Thrones, post-AT&T incarnation of HBO — not to mention the larger entertainment landscape, where self-made YouTube stars are much more famous to people below a certain age than James Franco or Maggie Gyllenhaal. Early on, we see our favorite filmmaking duo leaving an Akira Kurosawa screening at Film Forum, Candy marveling at how Kurosawa could do so much with so little: “You could tell he’s got no fucking money, but somehow he manages to make you feel like you’re seeing a whole world!” Harvey agrees, suggesting, “There’s something about not having everything you need that brings out its own greatness.” Yet the rise of relatively inexpensive ($1500!) camcorders — the precursor to today, where smartphones make everyone into a would-be cinematographer — also has Harvey panicking about the competition from amateur porn. Candy makes the argument that TV didn’t kill movies, while we know that YouTube has yet to make a dent in Peak TV. Everyone has their own camera, but not everybody can make art like Candy can — or like The Deuce creative team can. But Harvey’s aggrieved focus on the bottom line, coupled with his decision to stop financing Candy’s creative ambitions, feels reflective of the direction the entertainment industry could be heading, where everything is either a would-be blockbuster or has to be made for even less than what Kurosawa had back in the day.
Simon’s already working on his next HBO project, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, but there’s a meta quality to “The Camera Loves You” that makes it feel more poignant than your average Blown Deadline season premiere. We are close to the end of our time in this particular world, with this cast of characters, but it also feels like we could be at the end of a lot of other things, too.
Some other thoughts:
* By jumping so far forward in time from where Season Two left off, we land in a phase of the AIDS crisis where the disease is already a sadly-understood fact of life. Paul‘s businesses in the gay community are suffering from it — while the customers who are still coming have little interest in being educated about, or practicing, safe sex — and Todd has to wear makeup to cover up the lesions he has from the virus. The impact is being felt in the straight community, too, with Bobby worrying about having contracted HIV from his many infidelities, and Rudy seeing a hit to his bottom line.
* D’Angelo Barksdale, meet Herc. Domenick Lombardozzi becomes the latest Wire alum to reunite with Simon and Pelecanos, playing Chris Alston‘s new ally Jack Maple, who is, as one NYPD official puts it to Goldman, “a transit cop who thinks he’s a city cop.” Jack seems much more competent than Herc ever was, but he has his own quirks, like drinking from his coffee cup after he sees the rotted ceiling leak into it.
* A new face to the Blown Deadline community (but not to HBO, since he did a stint in the final season of Girls): Corey Stoll, who plays Hank, a seemingly well-to-do businessman who flirts with Candy when they meet at 366 on New Year’s Eve. Elsewhere in Candy’s world (or Eileen’s, if you prefer), her mother Joan is ill, while no one in the family has heard from her son Adam in a while.
* While Melissa has transitioned from prostitution to porn (often wearing wigs to avoid overexposure), Loretta has kept working with Abby at the Hi-Hat, and has taken over for the late Dorothy as our resident activist, protesting the porn industry even as she sees that the current approach isn’t working.
* Finally, this week’s music: “I Melt With You” by Modern English (opening sequence in and around 366), “Just Fascination” by Cabaret Voltaire (Paul and Enrico at Bathhouse), “Looking for the Perfect Beat” by Afrika Bambaata (playing on a boombox outside 366), “Madame Butterly” by Malcolm McLaren (Hi-Hat during a slow lunchtime), “This Is The Day” by The The (Hi-Hat at night), “I Can’t Stop Loving You” by Ray Charles (Vincent and Andrea at the apartment), “The Killing Moon” by Echo & The Bunnymen (New Year’s Eve at the Hi-Hat), “Tenderness” by General Public” (the Vegas porn convention New Year’s party), “Out of Touch” by Hall & Oates and “Operator” by Midnight Star (New Year’s Eve at 366), “Escape from Babylon” by Paris (playing on the undercover cop’s boom box), and “Bustin Loose” by Chuck Brown” (back at 366 for New Year’s).