The Deuce, Its Everyday People, & Their Social Saga. By Brandon Topp.
The Deuce blew my mind. David Simon shows tend to feel like dramatic blueprints of systematic struggles common in urban American societies. The works paint these vast schematics that track institutional tragedies through the lens of the everyday people, in everyday scenes. Connecting a broad vision to the pains, struggles, hungers, and conversations of the humans at the center of these broader messages makes for one of the richest brands of storytelling I know.
Keeping in tradition, Simon nailed it again, this time co-creating The Deuce with longtime collaborator George Pelecanos. The show’s third and final season wrapped up this week, and it was the most emotional and heart wrenching of its chapters. It was also exceptionally beautiful. That’s a broad adjective, but these eight episodes were undoubtedly full of beauty.
One of my favorite performances of the season came from actor Chris Coy and his portrayal of Paul in “You Only Get One,” the fifth episode of this latest season. Paul’s been a brilliant character throughout, but this occasion certainly felt like his climax.
The scenes with Todd, the love of Paul’s life, dying from AIDS in their apartment, and Todd’s estranged parents visiting were magnificent pieces of drama. How the AIDS crisis plays into the season, and Gene Goldman’s move to change Times Square was also fascinating, and a prime example of how Simon productions grasp the layered influence of politics on particular communities and cultures in more profound and insightful ways than most.
But, the depth of every line, and the measure of the performances in those scenes with Paul and Todd’s parents moved me so much that I remember thinking the plot line would work brilliantly as its own one-act play. That’s not to overlook the many other captivating wheels spinning in The Deuce machine at the time. Emily Meade’s portrayal of Lori Madison was brilliant and heartbreaking throughout the series, and particularly bleak closing season. While dark, Madison’s story feels so important to the show’s focus on the humanity of the women in the sex industry.
That sounds feeble, to commend focusing on the humanity of humans. And it is fucked up, and I think The Deuce is pointing that out. It’s saying that women who are sex workers, and women who work in porn are obviously complex, real-ass human beings, even though they’re rarely viewed as such in their professions. They’re not purely victims, but they also deserve empathy and consideration. The Deuce never gets on a pedestal and says think this way about this world, it just looks closely at people whose stories are central to it. It’s moving, eye-opening, and thought provoking.
That philosophy of no judgement is baked into the show from the outset. Vincent Martino is an intriguing character when we meet him, because in a day and age where a lot of straight men had zero disregard for anything considered different, he ran bars that were for all genders, professions, looks, and stories. He prided himself on that approach, and it went a long way towards building a successful operation.
Candy is one of the most fascinating feminist characters imaginable, and her refusal to express shame, or to look down on porn and the sex work industry was central to her identity. She’s a pillar of this no judgement theme. This human, heartful theme that’s rare in television writing. The world beat her down, no question about it. But, she never made herself out to be a victim, and even when it nearly threatened her life, she supported herself throughout.
Speaking of Candy, I think Harvey telling her that she was making a real film, and that she had to complete it was one of the most satisfying moments I’ve ever watched on screen. Even with Candy too overwhelmed to take it. That type of sincere validation is almost every artist’s dream, and no filmmaker has been through more than Candy.
I was so happy to feel she finished it, and thought it was the perfect tragedy for her character that she never saw its success, despite the film ending up becoming a cult favorite later picked up by the Criterion Collection. George Pelecanos says in an inside look of the episode on HBO that the film is based on Wanda by Barbara Loden.
We get loads of these exceptional conversations throughout the show, and each one feels earned because of the style of The Deuce. This broad tapestry maps the migration of impoverished communities and sex workers over the course of arguably the most drastic example of gentrification ever. The method of the mapping is simply showing a great deal of everyday scenes lived out by the people central to the social shift.
A ton of the first season centers on everybody hanging out at the diner, weaving in and out through their individual roles in this corrupt, yet intimate community. The sex is casual, arguments come and go, and everyone always has more important shit to worry about, because that’s life when you’re struggling to make ends meet. Gangster characters Rudy Pipilo and Tommy Longo are reasonable, casual businessmen for the majority of the series. Rudy holds his own the whole way. They’re far from typical, embellished mafiosos—these are men going to work, just like the prostitutes are mainly women going to work, just like these are just cops going to work.
The everyday rhythm of the show makes its deaths feel that much more sudden and jarring—a type of surprise eerily realistic, and that’s been typical of Simon on The Wire and Treme among other shows. This season had a difficult number of these shocking deaths, beginning with Frankie, then Rudy, and the brutal suicide of Lori Madison.
Those we saw go, and those who drifted off—everybody’s complicated, everybody’s got a story, and it all blends together in this machine that feeds the rich, and shits on the poor. It’s an American theme, a global theme, and a Blown Deadline Production theme, which is illustrated in the most captivating way by David Simon and the writers he teams up with.
The frustration of perpetual dread comes across in a heartbreakingly honest scene, when Chris Alston takes Gene Goldman to the Bronx to show him prostitutes who’ve moved on from The Deuce to a new place. Then Alston gives this encapsulating statement from a script penned by co-creators George Pelecanos and Davis Simon, “We fixed nothing, Gene. All we did was push it.” He continued, “All we do is push the shit to another corner of the room, so people have enough space to build fresh shit and make money. That’s the only thing that ever happens. Someone spends a dollar and makes ten or a hundred or a thousand, but the people, all those shitted up souls I policed all those years in all that mess, they just hang on. Everyday the same.”
It’s a grim, but honest portrait of humanity in the shadow of the machine.
Treating People Like People
I saw David Simon and George Pelecanos at The Austin Film Festival in 2017, and there they premiered the season finale of the first season of The Deuce. Despite the show’s lack of judgement in regards to its characters, I judged the festival’s audience, because the theatre was only half filled for the screening. This was David fucking Simon. Where was everyone? This is a sentiment I’ve felt throughout the airing of The Deuce, which while being one of the most intelligent and well-reviewed shows on television this decade has never received an Emmy nomination, or a prize from any other major award show.
But The Deuce, and most other Simon productions, and other beloved, award-snubbed programs like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia all present as unconcerned with the judgement of others, but prefer to stay truthful to their stories and missions. This, in my opinion, doesn’t help their acclaim, but does help what truly matters—the story, and the episodes.
During the Q&A following the screening, I wanted to ask one question, “Is Vince a good person?” I didn’t have the nerve to raise my hand and chickened out. Honestly, I’m happy I did, because the answer I figured out for myself during the finale was quite satisfying. We’ve seen Vince do a lot. We’ve seen him leave his family, we’ve seen him (though reluctantly) support the sex work industry, and we’ve seen him share a lot of love with a lot of folks. We’ve seen him welcome outcasts with zero judgement, and then build a family with those people.
Vince isn’t a good guy, or a bad guy. He’s a complicated human being who happened to live his life at the central of a drastic shift in the most energetic city in the history of the world. He’s an ideal central character, because he’s a friendly neighborhood bartender, who is imperfect, and whose imperfections have led him down a brilliant path, and given him plenty of fascinating stories to tell.
He’s a bartender you can still find in New York City, but who you’re unlikely to chat up in Midtown today. Not saying those bartenders don’t exist, and not saying they don’t work in Midtown, just saying there’s a lot less establishments that will let them give an honest pour.
P.S. The conclusion was unexpected, fitting, and quite emotional—one to remember, and to celebrate for story lovers of all sorts.
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