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'The Deuce' Returns, a Few Years Ahead
September 9, 2018  | By David Hinckley

For sheer non-stop action, not even an Ultimate Fighting showdown can match the Tenderloin district of New York in the 1970s.

The Deuce, HBO’s raw drama about 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues in those Wild West years, returns for its second season Sunday at 9 p.m. ET.

Just don’t forget to wash your hands after each episode.

While The Deuce makes that notorious strip of New York a little more concentrated and telescoped than it really was, it paints a vivid picture of life in the shadowy areas on the fringe of the law.

James Franco (right) returns as Vincent and Frankie Martino, brothers whose seemingly legitimate businesses are fronts for the Mob that sucks a percentage out of everybody.

Maggie Gyllenhaal (top) is back as Eileen Merrell, who in the first season played a streetwalker trying to operate without a pimp, which was risky business.

That was 1972. Season 2 fast-forwards to 1977, and while The Deuce outwardly looks to be the same fast-moving, dangerous place, the rules have changed.

For starters, pornographic movies have become legal enough to carve out a spot as a legitimate film niche, albeit a sleazy one.

Among all the Deuce characters, this has mostly benefited Eileen. At the end of Season 1, she attended the red-carpet premiere of Deep Throat and realized she might be able to make just as good a living filming sex as selling it.

With a lot less wear and tear, a lot lower risk and no need to even think about a pimp.

For Season 2, then, Eileen dresses in jeans and a shirt, not short-shorts and lacy tops. She’s lost the wig, and she’s working on the art of cutting film.

Literally cutting film. This is 1977, before digital editing became the norm, so she has to take physical film and splice it together frame by frame.

Her results, we have to be honest, aren’t setting the cinema world on fire. She’s going for art, while her editor partner keeps telling her that in the porn biz, that just annoys the target demo.

You want skin and sex, he tells her. That’s what you’re selling. Not random shots of cheetahs galloping across the veldt.

Eileen listens to him while musing privately that to her mind, the sex is the least interesting part of this whole game.

Some things have not changed in five years. Frankie has just gotten married again, to a dancer. Let’s say we won’t count on their celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary in 2027.

Vince, who was married to Andrea (Zoe Kazan) when the show started, now seems to be serious about Abby Parker (Margarita Levieva), the college student who came into this world looking for some casual kicks and seems to have settled in to stay. She runs the Hi-Hat Club now and has an innovative eye. When the club hits a down stretch, she brings in a rock band that sounds a lot like the Ramones, and bingo, the dance floor fills up again.

As in the first season of The Deuce, sex is only the marquee activity. We also get violence, intimidation, substance abuse and, soon, the first alarming flare-ups of HIV and AIDS. That would be the next game-changer, but since LGBTQ issues were mostly outliers in the public sex game of 1977, the early episodes of Season 2 focus more on how the Martinos, Eileen, and everyone else tries to carve a stable living out of a fluid business.

There are moments when they all envy Leon (Anwar Glover), who runs the local diner and is only selling eggs over easy.  

While The Deuce runs a dizzying number of simultaneous mini-dramas and subplots, it has always tried to keep one wary eye on the longer game, which is how the vice business affects and changes, or doesn’t change, the people in it.

In the first season, a newspaper reporter tried to do an expose on the 42nd Street sex trade, only to have her editor dilute it into a “human interest” story.

This season we meet Gene Goldman (Luke Kirby), an earnest young man from the incoming Mayor Edward Koch administration. He’s concerned that too much prominent bad news from The Deuce – murders, drug epidemics, sex scandals, whatnot – will reflect badly on the city and damage its tourist appeal.

If Gene can keep his eye on that prize amidst everything cascading through The Deuce, he deserves free passes to Eileen’s next movie.

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