The Deuce, the HBO drama co-created by David Simon and George Pelecanos of The Wire, is back for a second season with more guts and a little more glitz atop the usual heaping helpings of sleaze. The series picks up with a time jump from 1972 to 1977, from the years when pimps ruled Times Square and obscenity laws began to relax to when the porn industry began to climax (pun intended, obviously) before approaching the midstream. The series title matches up to the era’s nickname for 42nd street in Manhattan, and the show’s players are still either completely entrenched in the sex industry or circling the edges with their own agendas in this occasionally heartbreaking world.
Season 2, which debuts on HBO on September 9, signals big shifts and evolutions for multiple female characters, while their male counterparts largely have not changed. (A crude oversimplification of matters, but not false.) Two main male characters return in caricature form as Vincent and Frank Martino, the stunt-twins played by James Franco. Vin’s still mopping up Frank’s messes, and the pair gets pulled further into business ventures (including a disco club, peep show, and dry cleaner) that serve as fronts for the Mafia. Frank lies, cheats, and steals while regretting nothing, and Vin remains the worrier and the one who covers everyone’s asses while letting his own fly unprotected in the wind. Elsewhere, the men are cops who are still struggling to adjust to this newish reality, or they’re pimps, who are, in the case of C.C. (Gary Carr), slightly wealthier, but only because his alpha girl, Lori (Emily Meade), is now acting in porn films.
Yes, this season, set during the during the Golden Age of Porn and Disco, is for the ladies. There’s even a lady agent, cunningly played by Alysia Reiner (best known as Fig from OITNB), waiting in the wings. The turning of the tables is almost hilariously forecast in the first episode by a painting of poppies inside Vin’s bar, now run by Abby (Margarita Levieva). It remains unsaid that the artwork looks like a vagina, all while Vin insists that the painting must be upside down, not that flipping the painting to the “right side up” would change anything. And that’s a nod to the unapologetic side of The Deuce. The show has always resisted the resistance to change, while also not falling prey to clichés like the familiar “hooker with a heart of gold.”
The season quickly sets up what’s happening for Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who’s on top of Times Square. This is a stark contrast to her season one plight, where she remained the one prostitute who stood firm in refusing the hand of anyone who’d take a cut of her earnings. “Nobody makes money off my pussy but me,” she insisted last season, although Rodney the pimp (played by Method Man) cruelly taunted Candy after a john beat the holy hell out of her in a hotel room. A handful of years later, her efforts to not only start acting in porn but step behind the camera have paid off, and Candy is seen striding confidently down the street, where she swears she’ll never work again.
Candy’s now a bona fide triple threat. She’s still dabbling in porn acting, but she’s mostly directing now and branching into producing. She gets a little too serious along the way about scripting these projects, at one point trying to make them artsy productions, in the manner of an auteur. Yet porn-practicality eventually wins out in that regard, and her experience hints at where Candy could further land in the future. Also related to Candy, one of the pimps throws in his pimp hat and, in a delicious turn of events, has a “can’t beat ’em, so I’ll join ’em” shift in his story.
The most satisfying aspect of Candy’s filmmaking rise — other than Gyllenhaal having an absolute blast in this role — is that while Candy was initially given an opportunity by a male director, her drive, vision, and pursuit of creativity (such as it is in this genre) are all her own and cement her continued success after breaking into the business. Yet there will be the bittersweet realization from viewers that Candy’s autonomy and authoritative rise would never fly in any genre other than porn, at least not for decades to come.
Although this season mostly belongs to Candy, another female character stops taking a backseat and comes to the forefront of the action. That would be Abby, who’s slightly older and even wiser, now managing Vin’s bar, highlighting nascent punk-rock culture, and pushing to recognize artists. And although she’s still dating Vin (Levieva recently spoke with Uproxx about this seemingly unlikely continuance), she’s trailblazing in multiple ways for women. Abby’s transformation leads her to dive deep into activism and further advocate for the sex workers who pepper the street and the massage parlor, which is one of many Vin-Frank operations. And she reunites with a familiar face in an effort to bring true change to The Deuce and beyond. Not much more can be revealed about Abby’s season two arc without wading into heavy spoiler territory, but this character will one day be remembered for her progressive efforts.
Overall, the first half of season two is a slightly lighter version of The Deuce than the one that came before, and although there are some very dark moments, many of the characters — for the first time since we’ve known them — project newfound optimism. They sense change on the horizon, and although 42nd street could bring that positive vibe crashing down at any moment, this wild assortment of players will let the good times roll while they can.
‘The Deuce’ season two premieres this coming Sunday night on HBO.