HBO has quietly shed erotic programming from its late-night lineup, but there's still "The Deuce," a fascinating, high-class and timely drama, situated during the formative days of modern pornography but -- as filtered through that prism -- with a lot to say about where we are now.
Picking up five years after season one ended, the provocative series has gone from the long lines that greeted "Deep Throat" to what was unfolding in and around adult theaters -- during a slightly more evolved if still paleolithic era of New York smut -- when "Star Wars" and "Saturday Night Fever" filled more traditional venues.
Home Box Office Inc
Sex and gender issues
That would be 1977, and the soundtrack -- with its disco-flavored rhythms -- reflects the time jump, while helping capture a particularly significant moment. Porn is becoming big business, entering what some saw as its "golden age." But efforts to produce more ambitious, even arty fare are met with resistance, during a period that predates AIDS but in which racial prejudice impacts those looking to get in the game, such as Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a pimp contemplating a new career path.
Like other series set in the '60s and '70s ("Mad Men" being a prime example), "The Deuce" invites contemplating political issues of today by looking backward, including the state of gay rights, feminism and what would become the #MeToo movement 40 years ago.
A later episode contains a particularly compelling scene regarding the last of those topics, as Maggie Gyllenhaal's Candy -- who has made the transition from porn actress to director -- meets with a potential financier, who assumes that she'll accede to whatever he demands.
Created by David Simon ("The Wire") and George Pelecanos, "The Deuce" continues to feature a sprawling cast, but its most marketable face remains one of its weakest links: James Franco, in a dual role as twin brothers with very different personalities, both operating around the fringes of this shady, mobbed-up world.
Franco is fine, but compared to other key characters, it's easy to wish there was half as much of him instead of double.
While the themes within the show are often dark, "The Deuce" can also be dryly funny, such as a scene in which one actress boasts about getting the chance to perform with a "trained actor" -- his signature credit being a toothpaste commercial.
Simon has established a high standard with his HBO dramas, and "The Deuce" doesn't quite match the best of them. But in broad thematic terms, it's a strong reminder that efforts to see America's past through rose-colored lenses often require ignoring plenty of blemishes, as well as how enterprising if unsavory types have always found a way to monetize society's more prurient appetites.
Porn -- and specifically, Stormy Daniels, another actress turned director -- have been very much in the news of late. Explicit movies, meanwhile, are available to watch online and buy without ever leaving home, a likely unimaginable development for those within the show skulking around XXX-rated theaters, which helped explain why HBO decided its edited movies and series could no longer compete.
As "The Deuce" makes clear, the past is prologue, and the basic lessons of economics -- supply and demand -- don't really change; it's just the means and methods of delivery that have received a 21st-century makeover.
"The Deuce" returns Sept. 9 at 9 p.m. on HBO.
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