In the first season of HBO’s “The Deuce,” the image that framed the series in my mind was that of James Franco as Vincent Martino striding through 1970s New York with the camera showing his shoes hitting the pavement like those of John Travolta’s Tony Manero in “Saturday Night Fever,” a hit film from that disco era.
I saw it as series creators David Simon and George Pelecanos visually saying, “Pay attention. This is the guy to keep your eye on. He’s your entry point to this world, and his journey is the one that matters most.”
Season 2, which arrives Sunday night opens with Maggie Gyllenhaal as Candy, a prostitute and adult film actress now starting to make a name for herself as a director, gliding down the sidewalk in a cream-on-white disco-dreamy-looking outfit backlit by a neon glow and looking like she owns the world of Times Square.
Season 2 of "The Deuce" premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO
This season, she’s the one to keep your eye on as she tries to make a career for herself behind the camera in a porn industry that is moving from peep shows into the mainstream of American culture. That shift in focus from Vincent to Candy is at the heart of a larger movement from in Season 2 from the men to the women of “The Deuce.”
Set in 1977, five years after Season 1 ended, several of the women in series are trying to assert themselves and take more control of their lives. There’s a historical resonance to that as it relates to what was happening in 1970s America with the women’s movement.
Here it involves not just prostitutes gaining power as their pimps become increasingly weaker but also some women trying to alter the dynamic of their romantic relationships with men, while others are organizing to change working conditions and help some of the most vulnerable young workers in the prostitution and porn industries.
Lori (Emily Meade) and Darlene (Dominique Fishback) use their success as actresses in the nascent adult film industry to gain leverage on their pimps, while Ashley (Jamie Neumann) returns as an activist to the realm she once inhabited as a sex worker on the streets herself.
Abigail “Abby” Parker (Margarita Levieva) successfully manages the Hi-Hat nightclub with a mix of punk rock music and a growing sense of female solidarity. By the end of the four episodes made available to critics, it feels like the power dynamic of her romantic relationship with Vincent is shifting her favor. At least, she seems more independent of him and connected to the politics of the women’s movement.
The two most powerful moments in the four episodes are about women, power and patriarchy.
In Episode 3, Candy goes out to Los Angeles for the Erotica Awards dinner honoring some of those who work in the adult film industry. While there, she tries to raise money for a film she wants to direct based on the “Little Red Riding Hood” fairy tale.
To avoid spoilers, I am not going to share specific details. But watch Gyllenhaal’s face as she is told by one money man what it will take to get him to invest. As the camera looks into her eyes, it feels as if you are watching her brain process the man’s words one by one. And you can see a myriad of reactions flash across her face before she responds.
This is as good as acting gets on any screen, and it fully rewards those viewers who allow themselves to get caught up in her journey. This is the moment I bought into Season 2 and came to appreciate what the series has to say, not just about 1977 but also about women and the entertainment industry today.
The other scene that moved me came at the very end of the four episodes at a freshly dug grave in the rain. It held the remains of a young female victim of some of the worst of what patriarchy had to offer women who worked in the sex industry in 1977. The two women who mourn stand apart from the two men in attendance. It is one of bleakest, coldest, most existential and alienated TV moments I have seen in a while. Anya Epstein, one of my favorite all-time writers of TV drama, wrote Episode 4.
That’s the good news of Season 2: more Gyllenhaal and more women’s stories told in greater depth.
The bad news: There is less to like about Franco’s performance.
In Season 1, I was deeply impressed by Franco’s work as both Vincent and his twin brother, Frankie Martino. It was impossible to take your eyes off Vincent, as Franco held your attention on the screen like few performers in television can.
I didn’t write it at the time, but thinking back, I felt as if his onscreen presence was even more potent than that of Dominick West, who played a feature role in Simon’s “The Wire” and now stars in Showtime’s “The Affair.” Franco brought an edge and intensity to Vincent that grabbed you the second you saw him in the pilot closing up the bar at which he worked for the night.
But as gimmicky as playing twins could have been, it was his secondary role as the dangerously irresponsible Frankie Martino that blew me away. When Frankie entered a scene, he brought an attitude, energy and even joy to it that was irresistible. Much of it came from the way Franco used his body to communicate a feeling of buoyancy and pure physical pleasure.
In my preview of season 1, I supported that assessment by pointing to a scene near the end of Episode 3 in which Frankie punches up the 1971 song “Mr. Big Stuff” on a jukebox in Vincent’s bar and starts strutting (and I do mean strutting) his stuff (and I do mean stuff) across the dance floor.
There is nothing close to that in Season 2. That spark, the special force of energy that Franco brought to both brothers, is not there — and it is especially problematic for the depiction of Frankie, because that is the very thing that made him likable despite all his issues. This year, he just feels like a self-indulgent goof-off who is likely to get other people hurt. I had almost no interest in him during these first four episodes.
I am willing to acknowledge that the problem here could be with my views of Franco rather than of his performance. Maybe my perception and feelings toward him have been altered by the #MeToo allegations against him of inappropriate or exploitative sexual behavior from five women reported in the Los Angles Times in January.
Franco denied allegations made against him on social media when addressing the issue on a talk show earlier this year.
And in separate statements to The Sun in January, Simon and HBO said there were no complaints about Franco in connection with his work as executive producer and star on the series.
Casey Bloys, the head of programming at HBO, told critics on press tour in Los Angeles in July that when the allegations arose in the Times, the network spoke with cast members, producers and others involved in Season 1 and that they all “felt comfortable” moving forward for a second season with Franco on board.
That doesn’t do much to address allegations of behavior before Franco’s involvement with “The Deuce.” And I am not in a position to try and adjudicate that here. But I suspect I’m not alone in finding that my feelings about the allegations are coloring my perception of his performance in Season 2. I know my feelings toward the work of Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Spacey, who used to be two of my favorite actors, have changed after allegations were made against them.
I hope I am being fair as a critic to Franco, but we are all pretty poor at self-critique, especially when it involves something we feel as strongly about as I do sexual exploitation after hearing about its effects first-hand from some of the victims of male managers at Fox News.
I do know I like the performances of Gyllenhaal, Meade, Fishback and Levieva more, and Franco less this season. And I am glad to see the series tacking closer to the reality of the women’s movement in the late 1970s.
I’ll be back for the rest of Season 2. I want to see where Candy’s aspiration takes her, and whether standing by that grave in the rain changes the two women who came to mourn and bury someone they saw as a fallen comrade.