Pop Culturing: HBO's 'The Deuce' Climaxes & Finishes with Porn in the 80s

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Friday September 6, 2019

James Franco in "The Deuce."
James Franco in "The Deuce."  (Source:Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

Disco is dead and punk/new wave rule. Times are changing (again) on HBO's porn drama "The Deuce," which enters its third and final season Monday. Season 2 ended in 1978 — one of the most tumultuous times for New York City — and the new season picks up on Dec. 31, 1984, yet another electric time in the Big Apple.

Not only has music changed in the last seven years but so has the culture. By 1985, porn has pierced the national conciseness in a way like never before, becoming more mainstreamed (albeit not what it's like today). That's partly thanks to technology. Home videos, VCRs and camcorders (remember those!) are putting porn into the handles of the people. And with that, the need to head out to theatres and sex stores that shot screen porn is on the decline. Like with each season of "The Deuce," culture and the business are facing a seismic sea change. What remains the same is that the series is still a hangout show. Like "Cheers," the best thing about "The Deuce" is its excellent cast. They're people you look forward to seeing each week and checking in on what they're up to. But instead of being a mailman or a therapist, they happen to be pimps and porn stars complaining about their jobs.

Created by George Pelecanos and David Simon, "The Deuce" is anchored by performances from Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco. Gyllenhaal's Eileen has changed the most throughout the show's three seasons. She began as a sex worker without a man, going by the name Candy, but made her way through the porn industry and is always striving for more. After making a number of notable feminist porn flicks, Eileen is setting her sights on her next movie in Season 3. Things get a bit complicated when her longtime business partner Harvey (the excellent David Krumholtz) won't financially back her efforts and a new (wealthy) love interest, played by Corey Stoll, enters the picture.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in "The Deuce." Photo credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Not much has changed for the Martino twins, Vinny and Frankie (both played by Franco). Vinny continues to run the Top Hat bar along with his partner Abby (Margarita Levieva) as well as several other establishments for Rudy Pipilo, a Gambino family capo. But with the business in flux profits are on the decline. It also doesn't help that the AIDS epidemic is scaring people away from anonymous sex and porn. On top of that, the New York mob is undergoing a change in power and NYPD is continuing to crack down on crime in "The Deuce." It's a lot of heat for hardworking and well-meaning Vinny. But Frankie is still Frankie — a screwup who gambles, sells bad coke and slips through the cracks of the broken system by the skin of his teeth, narrowly escaping the major consequences of his actions.

Not only can people watch porn in the comfort of their own home and no longer have to trek to seedy theatres on "The Deuce" (which feels like Pelecanos and Simon's echoing today's ongoing Netflix vs. movie theatres discussion) but with the rise of somewhat affordable technology, folks can make their own porn. Apparently, one of the biggest sellers is amateur porn, which is often staged. Studios attempt to make amateur-looking porn, using unknowns and shoddy camera work. But early on in Season 3, Frankie takes a meeting with a seemingly average couple who make their own porn and want to work with him on distributing it. After watching a sample scene, which involves an impromptu delivery man, Frankie knows he's hit a jackpot.

Chris Coy, left, and Aaron Dean Eisenberg, right, in "The Deuce." Photo credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Season 3 is more interior than before and it uses the AIDS epidemic as a looming threat over the straight characters and, of course, its queer characters, most notably Paul (Chris Coy), who is running a popular but shrinking gay bar while supporting his partner Todd (Aaron Dean Eisenberg), a rising actor who is battling HIV and trying to keep it under wraps while he makes the most of his healthy life. Like its previous two seasons, the show is less concerned about plot and more about spending time with its characters, developing them and allowing for its excellent cast to chew up the scenery. A breakout this season is Michael Gandolfini (the late James Gandolfini's son), who plays Joey, the son of Bobby (Chris Bauer), Vinny and Frank's brother-in-law and right-hand-man. Joey, now a young man, has maneuvered his way into Wall Street and has plans of using his chauvinistic coworker's partying and lust into a business venture for his father, who runs a brothel of sorts.

Over three episodes HBO provided, it's hard to tell where or how "The Deuce" will end. More often than night, "The Deuce" proves to be a hopeful show with its tragic and most violent moments sporadically occurring. Though its story is about the porn industry, "The Deuce" is about the American dream and who profits the most from that. Over three seasons, it's shown that women, people of color, and queer people are systematically repressed from the same opportunities as white people and white men. Pelecanos and Simon have always been about highlighting how systems fail people and "The Deuce" is no different. It's a microcosm of a world never explored on TV and the finish line ought to be a poignant statement for 2019.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.

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