A review of this week’s The Deuce, “What Big Ideas,” coming up just as soon as I have borscht on my tsitsis…
“Shit, that’s the man I know.” -Darlene
By now, we should be used to the idea of a Simon/Pelecanos show threading the needle between grim subject matter and sheer entertainment value. It’s been the Blown Deadline Productions ethos for almost two decades: a spoonful of laughter makes the bitter medicine go down. Still, an episode like “What Big Ideas” feels particularly striking in how consistently it’s able to toggle between pleasure and horror.
The hour opens with Larry posing for boudoir photos as the next step in his quest to become a porn actor. He charms the pants off the photographer by literally removing his own, doing a full-frontal Burt Reynolds in Cosmo pose while flashing a dazzling smile. He demonstrates one key attribute for the job in that teaser and an equally important one when he plays his first scene for Candy near the end of the hour. Whether he has difficulty reading, as Darlene assumes, or just doesn’t buy into the script, at first he seems to be flailing around. Then Candy gives him license to improvise, and suddenly Larry proves to be a master thespian, pleasing his director, his co-star and his favorite co-star with how intensely seductive he seems.
The whole thing is a howl, particularly the concerned look on the face of Larry’s co-star after he warns her in between takes to brace herself. But it’s a scenario ripe for silliness — like a lot of Frankie comic-relief subplots (including his misadventures here in the dry cleaning business) — because of the power imbalance. Candy, Lori and the other women get into porn as a way to escape street work; they need to do this. Larry just wants to do it because it seems more exciting than pimping. That he has undeniable natural talent makes it more fun for us to watch(*). But a failure for him would only mean embarrassment (Darlene and the other women in his employ would probably suffer more than him, even if Larry in general is depicted as less monstrous than CC or Rodney), where the stakes for a failed actress are much greater and scarier.
(*) And for Gbenga Akinnagbe to play. This show and The Wire both cast him as imposing men of few words, relying on his commanding physical presence more than his verbal dexterity. It’s a nice change of pace for him to play someone this good at talking.
The other side of this coin is presented in the form of Kitty, a massage parlor worker who dies horribly when Hodas’ guys torch the place as part of the ongoing feud with Rudy‘s crew. Bobby will later insist that he protected her, just like he protects all the girls who work there. But Dorothy‘s investigation reveals that Kitty (née Stephanie Esposito) was literally a girl of 15 or 16 when Bobby hired her. She was, like almost all of the sex workers (save the rare independent like Candy), taken into indentured servitude for the pleasure of some men and the profit of others. A guilt-ridden Vincent pays for a burial so Stephanie won’t go in the ground as a Jane Doe, but the same machine that chewed her up and spit her out will just pull in some other poor girl to take her place.
Earlier in the episode, Abby is slightly irked when her photographer friend Vivian seduces Vincent. But that’s less about him being unfaithful in their admittedly elastic relationship than about Vivian blowing off the show Abby put on for her at the bar. (She even tells Vincent not to keep Vivian waiting.) And whatever annoyance she felt about Vivian’s slight seems non-existent compared to how righteously angry she is with Bobby for letting this girl die and Vincent for covering for his idiot brother-in-law. All these years together, she doesn’t seem to fully comprehend the degree of her boyfriend’s involvement in the local sex trade, which makes Vincent’s insistence on paying for the cemetery plot and headstone a red flag to her.
Vincent, at least, doesn’t treat the death like business as usual. He never wanted to be a part of the massage parlor business, but did it to get Bobby a job. Stephanie’s murder prompts him to ask out again, but his conversation about it with Tommy is interrupted by Tommy murdering one of Hodas’ men as retaliation.
Vincent has always tried to hold himself separate from the pimps like Bobby and Larry or the wiseguys like Rudy and Tommy, but he’s just splitting hairs. He’s a part of the machine just like they all are, and he gets to enjoy the fruits of women’s labor just like they do. It’s fun for them — and sometimes fun for us to watch — but not at all for the ones who provide the actual service that makes the machine go.
Some other thoughts:
* Candy’s still struggling to assemble financing for her Red Riding Hood movie, but at least she finally seems to have Harvey in her creative corner (and Harvey’s wife Jocelyn, too).
* Shay has been perpetually high all season. It finally catches up with her this week, with symptoms so bad, Irene feels compelled to pay to put her into a detox facility.
* Alston rightly sniffs out Goldman’s task force as being useless with its collection of crooked cops and other humps (akin to the original Barksdale detail on The Wire), and delivers another bit of vintage Blown Deadline wisdom: “This is the Deuce. If it were half as easy as you think it is, you wouldn’t be here in the first place.”
* For the most part, CC is a nightmare for Lori to deal with on set (among other places), which is why she rightly seeks the agent Kiki‘s help in keeping him away from future movie jobs. But Larry’s not the only pimp with something to offer the porn industry this week, as CC essentially invents the idea of using POV shots to make the viewer feel like he’s the one having sex. Bernie sees some merit to it, and down the road it will become an industry staple.
* Party like it’s 1978: Candy’s son Adam enthusiastically tells her all about The Love Boat, which was in the middle of its hit first season at the time the episode takes place. It was arguably the peak of the Seventies wave of stealth anthologies (see also: Fantasy Island), as a regular cast of characters (including Mary Tyler Moore Show alum Gavin MacLeod and future congressman Fred Grandy) appeared every week, even while the cruise ship passengers changed. Creatively, The Love Boat and The Deuce (or, for that matter, The Love Boat and The Wire) are about as far apart as two TV dramas can get, but (and I apologize in advance for this point, but I’m going to make it anyway) there is a weird bit of structural overlap between what Aaron Spelling did there and what Simon does with all his shows. To try to make Love Boat as broadly appealing as possible, Spelling and his team made sure each episode featured a mix of demographics: one story about teenagers or young adults, one about a couple in their thirties or forties, one involving silver-haired passengers played by beloved stars of yesteryear. The motivation in that case was just generational pandering, but that attempt to look at a wider range of experiences within the same setting does (vaguely) recall the approach Simon and company take within each ecosystem they dramatize.
* One of Vivian’s photos is of Cookie Mueller. As noted, she appeared in many of John Waters’ early movies, which provides an excuse to add some more Baltimore color to a show set in NYC.
* This week’s soundtrack was a bit lighter than in most installments. Songs include Arthur Russell’s “Instrumentals, Vol 1 Part 1” and Peter Gordon’s “Machomusic” (the photography show at the bar), A Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie” (Vivian and Vincent flirt at 366), “Cliff Dweller” by Bennie Green (playing at the French Parlor bar) and Robby D’s “Keeping It Moving” (playing at Melody Burlesque).
What did everybody else think?