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Review: The Deuce’s Final Season Prides Anthropology Over Character

The show’s third and final season struggles to consistently build gripping stories for its vivid characters to inhabit.

2.5
Michael Haigis

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The Deuce
Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

With the first two seasons of The Deuce, showrunners David Simon and George Pelecanos offered glimpses of Times Square at critical inflection points. The series convincingly positioned real estate investment—not public morals, community policing, or mafia vagaries—as the preeminent engine for the corporate sanitization of the neighborhood. The third and final season jumps to 1984, yet another important historical moment, and continues to memorialize a time and place erased by corporatization. As always, the show’s characters remain romantic visions of largely extinct New York types. And while the series mourns their disappearance, the characters themselves, even after three seasons, tend to occupy frustratingly static stories—even as the world transforms around them.

Which isn’t to say that The Deuce lacks a compelling hook. Season three provides typically revealing insights into elements of ‘80s New York City that are underserved even in other texts which seek to lionize the era. The show’s presentation of Times Square entails a kind of shadow history, about everything from cops harassing building owners to the nascent AIDS crisis. Increasingly common random assaults—muggings, performed mostly by young black men who the NYPD refer to as “wolf packs”—forces the police to consider aggressive new strategies, and foreshadows real-life political handwringing over emerging “super predators.”

The wolf packs are introduced in season three’s first scene, which unfolds with the bruising clarity of many David Simon theses. A group of kids targets Tommy Longo (Daniel Sauli), a low-level mobster, before being dissuaded by the gun in his waistband. As a literal confrontation between criminals from different generations, the scene reflects the passing of time—perhaps the show’s second most pressing concern, after capitalism. As the season wears on, though, cops ratchet their focus on the wolf packs, and that early scene assumes a new racial significance: Tommy and his mob paid for police protection and helped erode Times Square in seasons one and two, yet it seems that the presence of black muggers might finally prompt urgency in the city’s glacial effort to transform the neighborhood.

The Deuce argues convincingly for the macro-level importance of what’s happening in Times Square, even if the neighborhood’s inhabitants, despite being interesting types, rarely do interesting things. The series positions its prostitutes, porn stars, mobsters, and bohemians as dinosaurs, mostly unaware of their looming extinction, from disease, the advent of home video, and the real estate boom. There’s an elegiac sensibility to the first three episodes of the season made available to press, but The Deuce, beyond offering remembrance, is less clear about how it feels about the impending extinction event—or why the characters are worthy of our attention, beyond their lifelike representations of a forgotten time and place.

Because the series is ambitiously structured, in order to tell the unwieldy story of an entire city ecosystem, around three disparate years across three decades, it’s struggled to consistently build gripping stories for these vivid characters to inhabit. Vincent’s (James Franco) quiet drama with Abby (Margarita Levieva), his twin brother Frankie’s (Franco) attempts to sell porn, Rudy’s (Michael Rispoli) struggle to maintain mob influence—all are storylines that relate to capitalism, in the sense that every element of life is tangentially related to capitalism. Yet the series doesn’t always connect its storylines to the broader transformation of New York, and, as a result, story arcs such as Vincent’s can feel like afterthoughts, overshadowed by both the show’s central narrative and its overarching theme.

Simon and Pelecanos, in their attempts to venerate this era of New York, occasionally misstep in assuming that their characters remain interesting by virtue of their inspirations having merely existed in an iconic city at an interesting time. Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) remains the most captivating figure in the series because she’s one of the rare characters who’s managed to escape the narrative quagmire of the show’s Times Square scene: In season three, she acquires a wealthy new boyfriend, Hank (Corey Stoll), and the series deploys their relationship to reveal her mixture of shame and pride in her past. And an emerging conflict arises between gender expectations in a modernizing world: Can she keep chasing her filmmaking dream, or must she settle for the financial comforts of her new romance?

Conversely, Vincent, Frankie, and their mob associates toil in storylines which have developed only slightly over The Deuce’s decades-spanning arc. One could interpret this as intentional on behalf of its creators. By continuing to confine its totemic New York figures—the mobsters, barmen, and sleaze-balls—to plodding and static storylines, the series demythologizes them, suggesting that the cultural touchstones of New York history were just subjects to the fiscal whims of the city’s influential, faceless money movers—or “they,” as Abby vaguely refers to the corporate encroachers in one episode. Such an argument could feasibly be made, though, without relegating many of the show’s characters to mere observers. Even the reemergence of Vincent’s ex-wife, Andrea (Zoe Kazan), isn’t treated as a story hook as much as an event that merely happens, was always inevitable, and carries no tangible stakes. The stakes in the series are reserved for the neighborhood as a whole. The meteor is approaching Times Square, and The Deuce seems destined to conclude with a resigned shrug toward many of its inhabitants.

Cast: James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Margarita Levieva, Emily Meade, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Chris Coy, Chris Bauer, Michael Rispoli, Daniel Sauli, Corey Stoll, Zoe Kazan Network: HBO

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