As a title for this week’s episode of The Deuce, “Show and Prove” is a tough one to beat. Within its dirty world of 1971 Times Square, the phrase refers to the NYPD’s demand for sex workers to produce paperwork proving they’ve already been arrested within the past 48 hours. This allows them a reprieve from the current night’s “ho patrol” bust – a crime-stopping tactic so familiar that the police and prostitutes all order Chinese takeout and eat it in the precinct house’s courtyard together.
But it’s also an apt description of the challenge facing the series itself. The more it shows character after character the start of potential new paths for their lives, the more this series has to prove that all those paths will be worth going down. As it were.
Let’s start with the top-billed stars. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character, Candy, affords us a more extensive glimpse of her relationship with her family in the ‘burbs; she’s apparently a frequent enough presence to spend low-key afternoons playing Mousetrap with her son but sans any loaded expectations. It’s good to see her carefree and giggling with the kid; not even her dour, disapproving mom can rain on that parade.
Back on the street, Candy expresses skepticism about the skin-flick business in which some of her fellow sex workers like Ashley are “sunlighting” (i.e. what you call moonlighting if your day job takes place at night). As she points out, the woman gettin’ it on on-camera only gets paid once; the guys up the food chain in the film, theater and adult-store business are making money every time someone watches. Idealistic young streetwalker Darlene (played by Dominique Fishback and the show’s most empathetic character so far) learns this the hard way, when she discovers a film of her in flagrante delicto made “for private use only” is on sale at one of the local sex shops.
But when a friend asks her to fill in on a shoot she can’t make due to a court date, Candy discovers that this heavily sexualised form of showbiz has a certain appeal. It’s not the sex itself that gets her going – when it involves two scrawny dudes in viking helmets and a fake “money shot” involving cold potato soup, how could it? Rather, it’s the filmmaking process itself. The questions she asks about the lighting equipment and way she studies a skin flick she brings home for further examine – it seems we’ve got a budding porn auteur on our hands.
Our man Vincent is on the verge of a career pivot as well. With his leotard initiative at the Korean restaurant a smash success, he gets the idea of setting himself up as the money manager for very different operation. His brother-in-law Bobby (Chris Bauer, a.k.a. The Wire‘s Frank Sobotka) works on a construction site that pays by check after the banks close on Friday afternoon; that way the workers can’t get their money until after the weekend. Enter mobster Rudy Pipilo (Michael Rispoli, formerly the doomed Sopranos mob boss Jackie Aprile), who can provide the cash up front in exchange for a five-percent cut and some no-show jobs.
Based on Vinnie’s success managing the payday operation, the capo taps him to take over a failing gay bar in the neighbourhood, whose clientele have been scared off by blackmailers. And it turns out that Rudy has bigger plans for 42nd Street than just making a buck here and there. (Pipolo was a real member of the Gambino family, but still, it’s funny to hear a guy named “Rudy” talk about the need to clean up Times Square so tourists can enjoy themselves.) The kicker is that Vincent wouldn’t just run or renovate the place – he’d own it … provided he can pay $1,000 a week to his mobbed-up “landlord.” The American Dream, folks!
Finally, New York newcomer Lori discovers that her pimp C.C. is a man with a violent streak. He may sweet-talk her about settling down or jetting off to Paris, or talk up her star power when encouraging her to break into porn. But he also threatens her if she ever tries to leave him for another man, and straight-up murders a guy who’d posed as a fake cop to “arrest” her with the intention of raping her. (The way C.C. asks “You happen to remember where he put the cuff keys?” as the corpse pins her to her seat, like he’s a dude asking his wife if she knows where he left the remote control, is one of the episode’s most morbidly funny moments.) It’s a sharp contrast with the so-far care-free life of Abby, who drops out of college but stays in the city to lead a bohemian lifestyle funded by her rich mom’s money.
By now, perhaps you can detect the pattern emerging. Candy discovering porn, Vincent moving from tending bar to owning one, Lori getting a crash course in street life, Abby choosing la vie Bohème: In case after case, The Deuce isn’t just introducing us to its characters and their world, it’s introducing those characters to their world. And while it may be new to them, the approach is, frankly, getting a little old.
Think of The Deuce as the world’s seediest superhero-team movie – Avengers After Dark, say – but one in which every hero and villain’s origin story is squeezed into a single movie before anyone so much as throws a punch. Or, closer to home, imagine a version of The Wire in which newbies like the young low-level drug dealer Wallace were our entry point into every storyline. Pretend that McNulty’s a rookie cop instead of a seasoned detective; Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell meet for the first time rather than run the gang together; Tommy Carcetti campaigns for student council president instead of mayor, et cetera. No matter how much you love the Marvel and/or Detective John Munch Cinematic Universe, you can see how same-y and sloggy that would get.
For writers, this approach is awfully convenient. It gives you a semi-organic way to include exposition, since someone has to tell these noobs what’s what. And as your protagonists get an eye-opening view of their new world, learn their new role and discover whether they’re good or bad at it, you can quickly assemble their character arcs like so much Ikea furniture.
But for viewers, it’s rote and repetitive. Despite the presence of master crime novelists George Pelecanos and Richard Price in the writers’ credits, “Show and Prove” leads you by hand through the most basic of plot beats – headstrong young women hugging disapproving mothers goodbye, wide-eyed naifs getting their first look at the dark side of the city, down-on-their-luck dudes deciding that this mafioso is different from all the others, yadda yadda yadda. It all feels as predictable as the nightly visit from the paddy wagon that the women of the Deuce. Can we at least get some Chinese takeout too?
Previously: Sucking in the Seventies