Is anything actually happening in The Deuce?
That’s an unfair question, and I know it. Of course, things are happening in The Deuce. So why do I feel my mind wander when I watch it?
It’s hard not to compare The Deuce with David Simon’s earlier HBO giant, The Wire. And that’s a tough break because The Wire is arguably the perfect show. But if anything ought to be able to stand up to the comparison, it’s The Deuce. And I’m not sure it’s doing it.
One of David Simon’s trademarks is a broad examination of characters connected by a single issue—it was the heart of The Wire and it’s still going strong in The Deuce. But this time around there’s a subtle shift in these characters and the way their story is being told.
It’s a shift in the source of their drama.
The pilot of The Wire shows its characters in a state of flux. D’Angelo is acquitted of murder but knocked back down the ladder of his family’s drug empire when he returns home. McNulty bucks the chain of command in the police force and is knocked down his own ladder to a basement office with an inept team and an impossible task. Both men are in new situations, raging against forces outside their own control.
The characters interact with a world they know, but in situations that are new. We learn their makeup by watching them in transit. We’re swept along with them.
Not so with The Deuce.
The first episode of The Deuce is a slice of life. The characters know what they’re doing—they’ve been doing it forever. We meet a possible focal character in Lori (Emily Meade), fresh off the boat from Minnesota until it’s revealed that she’s an old hand at prostitution. It’s a fun inversion of expectations, but it throws out our only chance at an outsider’s view of this world. (The position is taken up somewhat by Sandra the journalist (Natalie Paul), but by the time of her introduction we’ve learned the ropes on our own and her presence serves as just another thread in the web).
There are a few changes on the rise, of course. Vincent (James Franco) leaves his wife (Zoe Kazan) and opens up a new bar. Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) develops an interest in pornography production. Abby quits school. Darlene starts reading Dickens. The Deuce isn’t without motion.
But all of these actions are choices.
The action in The Deuce comes from the slow evolution of its characters, their decisions to change things in their lives. There is no outside impetus, no influence to overcome. There’s no catalyst.
Our introduction to Vincent features something that feels like a catalyst—he’s robbed and nearly killed after depositing the night’s earnings from the bar he works at. But it doesn’t have a direct effect. It’s just one of many small things that add up to his decision to try his hand at bar management, hardly a fitting result for the violence of the action and its position at the start of the season.
Its biggest effect is the cut on Vincent’s forehead to helpfully differentiate him from his twin brother, Frankie (also James Franco).
And, of course, to show us what a scary place Times Square used to be.
Which leads to another source of the plot problem—The Deuce might be too caught up in its status as a period piece. The void left from The Wire’s effective action is being taken up by a specific time and place—elements that wind up bearing more weight than they perhaps deserve.
Of course, Simon’s miniseries Show Me a Hero was a similar period piece, but it’s time and place were defined by conflict. Its characters had goals and concerns that were sparked in the beginning by outside influence. And it was excellent.
So far The Deuce is missing that conflict.
Is this necessarily a bad thing? I’m not sure. There are far worse things than beautiful, high-quality examinations of a particular place and time. Because The Deuce is certainly that.
It just feels a little like a slideshow.