Entertainment

'The Deuce' Gets Right What 'Vinyl' Got Wrong

David Simon's porn-ucopia drama is making all the right moves—unlike some of its prestige TV predecessors.
September 29, 2017, 6:15pm
Natalie Paul, Dominique Fishback. Photo byPaul Schiraldi/HBO

The first thing we see in HBO's now-canceled series Vinyl is white music mogul Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale), upset and morosely snorting coke in his luxury car on a gritty street in 1973 New York. Suddenly he's yanked from his stupor by a stampede of screaming teens (a set piece that seems solely to exist in rock nostalgia films) and follows the din to the Mercer Arts Center. There, surrounded by nubile young things and coked out of his mind, Richie "discovers" glam rock—in the form of a band implied to be the New York Dolls. At the end of the episode, the Mercer Arts Center collapses. Richie escapes unscathed.

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This sequence, like much of Vinyl, tries thinly to cash in on a fever-pitch moment: 1970s NYC in its socially disordered glory, post-white flight and on the cusp of a devastating drug epidemic and cleanup. But mostly what Vinyl captures is Richie: Richie's coke-fueled, money-drenched implosion. Richie's struggle to stay powerful. Richie's attempt to cash in on several major movements—including punk and hip-hop—that showrunners Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter manage to reduce largely to Richie-centric storylines. And while Vinyl had all the stylish trappings of a win (the billions-of-dollars-in-licensing-fees soundtrack! The slick cast! Baby Mick Jagger!), the hotly anticipated series made one grave mistake. It decided its most exciting asset was the narrative of a privileged white guy with an excess of power and a deficit of gratitude. Vinyl, the culturally rich NYC period piece, turned out to contain almost nothing about its culture, its setting, or its era.

After the cancellation (a telling move for a network that rarely cancels freshman shows), it would have been understandable had HBO opted out of continued focus on New York disco-era subculture. But instead they dove right back in: The Deuce, a dazzling take on the 1970s Times Square porn industry, debuted quietly in September. And this time, in the capable hands of The Wire creator David Simon, HBO finally does 1970s NYC—and viewers—justice.

Above all The Deuce has diversity, not just in casting but also in content. In a genre where complexity's been long-reserved for Richie Finestra types, The Deuce allows non-white male characters a chance to be developed and seen. Simon's stretch of 42nd Street boasts no central Scorsese hero, but it does take the purview of those formerly relegated to scenery by Vinyl and its ilk: the overwhelmingly black, female, and lower-class characters who occupy the sex trade. There is the brilliantly explosive pimp CC (Gary Carr), an up-and-comer type who culls fresh-faced girls from the city bus terminal. There's the shrewdly independent white prostitute Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who will not work for a pimp, and the vulnerable Darlene (Dominique Fishback) who's conflictingly enmeshed with hers. There's James Franco in two equally compelling iterations: both as broke-but-honorable barkeep Vince and as his less-scrupulous twin brother, who convinces Vince to cash in on the burgeoning porn trade.

What's most compelling about The Deuce—and what elevates it from shows like Vinyl where select characters are often imbued with absolute authority while others have none—is its willingness to show what happens when people are given a taste of power in one moment, only to have it ripped away in the next. It's a true ensemble piece, where everyone takes a turn being both a beggar and a boss. There are also repeat reminders that institutionalized sexist and racist power hierarchies persist savagely at the bottom. Many of the The Deuce's best moments lie in its nuanced examination of how race, gender, and class inform control, in a disordered setting where power is ostensibly up for grabs. This transience of power, so familiar to anyone who has ever been non-white or non-male, feels much more authentic to what may have been the landscape of 70s New York.

This isn't to say The Deuce succeeds on diversity alone. It's also, quite objectively, damn good TV. But as its rise in the wake of Vinyl shows, gone are the days when mediocre TV can expect to get by without acknowledging narratives outside being exclusively white, male, and privileged. Would The Deuce have even been plausible decades ago? Unlikely. Would Vinyl have fared better had it aired years ago, in a less sophisticated landscape? Quite possibly. But in the age of peak TV, where standards are high and the appetite for authentically diverse stories is at a roar, nobody can afford to be both mediocre and unoriginally homogenous. HBO's move suggests the future of television rests in a willingness to venture beyond one type of character expected to resonate with all viewers. And in this respect, The Deuce feels like a win. It shows a willingness to give the people—all of the people—what they want to see.