Set in 1972, the first season of The Deuce mapped the sweeping effects of the commercialization of porn on the previously entrenched, street-level sex economy of New York City. In its second season, HBO’s sprawling, richly detailed series jumps forward to 1978 in order to arrive at another inflection point—one marked by the nascent feminist movement, emerging punk culture, and the complete commodification of porn. With this temporal leap, creators David Simon and George Pelecanos maintain the sensation that New York is perpetually on the brink of transformation, and create tension by intertwining the destinies of the show’s characters with the fate of the changing city.
The Deuce plunges viewers back into a crowded city landscape, without pausing to elucidate the events of the past six years. Vincent (James Franco) now owns a successful nightclub, in addition to his massage parlors and dive bar. His brother, Frankie (also Franco), is still an affable scumbag, but he disappears for large swaths of time this season after stealing cash from the sex shop he manages. The new season shifts focus away from them both, seeming to acknowledge that they’re among The Deuce’s least interesting, and certainly least novel, characters. While Vincent, a romantic vision of an old-school barman, helps connect the show’s disparate worlds, ultimately he and Frankie, a pair of mobbed-up Brooklynites, are familiar composites of legions of fictional New Yorkers. The series is far more compelling when it thrusts thoroughly sketched versions of often underrepresented figures—among them Abby (Margarita Levieva), Vincent’s girlfriend—into the foreground.
Abby’s maturing as a character and person, from a freethinking college dropout to a punk and women’s rights activist, and the resulting deterioration of her relationship with Vincent, is a central source of tension this season. The Deuce’s measured depiction of her emotional withdrawal illustrates the confluence of factors specific to 1978 that color the couple’s drama. As a burgeoning feminist, Abby takes issue with Vincent’s massage businesses. Just as critically, Vincent is aging out of Abby’s interests; her punk shows and avant-garde art exhibits fly over his head. The Deuce is surprising for rejecting convention at each turn, refusing to reduce their crumbling relationship to solely a moral clash over sex work, and also rejecting the idea that, as the show’s nominal romantic leads, the couple is destined for anything permanent. Instead, the series presents a realistically layered and evolving relationship, often employing the couple’s most subtle exchanges—even mere facial expressions—to signal significant changes in their dynamic.
Elsewhere, The Deuce employs the porn industry as a backdrop for the clash between art and commerce, which is arguably the season’s central theme. (Only four episodes were made available to critics ahead of the season-two premiere.) In absorbing, electric arguments, Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) collides with her directing mentor, Harvey (David Krumholtz), over her art-house impulses. In one memorable skirmish, Candy shows Harvey the cut of a film that recalls the work of Stan Brakhage more than commercial porn. Typifying the way Simon embraces complexity, the series unmistakably positions Harvey as an avatar for commercialism, while also depicting his shame: His exasperation—“Get to the fucking,” he tells her—is mostly a response to Eileen’s dogged commitment to artistic values he ceded long ago, and his guilt makes him more than a mere polemic device.
Beyond the punchy, palpable chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Krumholtz, The Deuce’s portrayal of the porn business allows the show’s writers to follow seemingly infinite thematic and narrative threads. While Eileen and Harvey argue over crosscutting and erotic dramaturgy, pimps C.C. (Gary Carr) and Larry (Gbenga Akkinagbe) flail in negotiations with veteran directors and producers. The season hints at potentially tragic consequences as the pimps cede power to these industry figures, and become more desperate to preserve the status quo. Carr, specifically, is a consistently terrifying presence, revealing a more feral version of C.C. as the character feels increasingly marginalized.
The Deuce never feels unfocused as it toggles its attention between the myriad cultural movements of 1978. It homes in on the emotions of its characters, even while broadly assessing the trend of countercultures being commodified. One episode’s idyllic depiction of the Los Angeles porn boom is later contrasted with the sad circumstance of actress Laurie (Emily Meade), who despite being part of New York’s porn vanguard in season one, can’t free herself from the increasingly cruel C.C. The series portrays Abby’s attraction to the punk scene as a rebellious epiphany, and the bleeding-edge subversiveness that entices her has become familiar shorthand for those nostalgic New York City dives that aspire to old-school edginess today. Overall, The Deuce formulates an intoxicating anthropology, characterized in equal measure by both possibility and sentimentality.
Change looms over The Deuce, and, as with last season, the series focuses on the far-reaching effects of urban transformation, and asks who benefits the most from urban renewal. In Simon’s work, change is calamitous for a city’s marginalized characters, those figures who are barred from the insulated corridors of power—and those figures toward which, including even the villainous and predatory pimps, Simon is clearly most sympathetic. For the club owners and porn stars in The Deuce, 1978 is a boom. Yet Simon, so focused on renewal and decay, is rarely coy about foreshowing the bust. Season two amounts to a halcyon recollection, overshadowed by impending tragedy that will likely come as a shock, and represent the end of the good old days, which were deteriorating from the moment they began.