‘The Deuce’ Season 2 Enters the Disco Era With Its Grit Intact

The more things change, the more they stay the same. HBO’s “The Deuce” returns for a second season which does not pick up where the first one left off. In fact, it jumps ahead five years into 1977, right into the disco era. We are back in New York during grittier times, among the underworld of hustlers, pimps and the porn industry. All of the main characters are back, having changed very little.

The season premiere is a slow burner with an almost Dantenean streak, as Vince (James Franco) wanders the streets and clubs and peep shows searching for his brother Frankie (Franco again), who has again taken money from the Show World peep show emporium, which really means he’s taken money from the mafia. Porn itself remains a thriving business, this is the pre-internet era when adult theaters were still around and the porno was shot on film. Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has even found grander success as an adult film star, getting her own advice column. Some of the hookers from the previous season like Lori (Emily Meade) and Darlene (Dominique Fishback) are now regularly on porn sets, which raises their own street value. Lori’s pimp CC (Gary Carr) can now shake down directors for more cash and charges clients at the bar up to $500 per session. However Darlene wants to start getting more of an education. She has achieved her GED under the nose of her own handler, Larry (Gbenga Akinnagbe)  and is now considering taking college night classes.

The whole episode works like a quick reunion and update. Chris Alston reappears now as a detective (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), in full trench coat and dedicated seriousness. The main focus centers on Vince and Frankie and Candy. The writing for Candy is interesting in that she is evolving now from mere porn actress to filmmaker, with Harvey (David Krumholtz) having kept his end of their bargain and allowing her to make her own movies. Possibly the episode’s greatest shot is of Candy in a red night dress, laying down on a table, attractive as ever, lazily watching the crew setting up. “Who knew the most boring part of this job would be the screwing?” This series never flaunts the porn angle, it treats it as what it was in the 1970s- an adult industry that was beginning to go mainstream, before the onset of Reaganism and the VHS revolution. Yet Candy is the exception to the rule. An undercurrent theme is that the women remain chained to a system run by men who exploit them and make a profit. None of the prostitutes benefit much from their newfound popularity. When CC shoves off a guy for not being able to pay his higher cost, Lori angrily lets him know this is her line of work, and he is depriving her of that work. Yet everyone is beholden to someone in this show. If the women are entrapped by the men, the men eventually have to pay their dues to the mobsters overlooking everything. Vince tries to be the responsible one, while Frankie remains an out of control wild thing, revealing by the end of the episode that he’s gotten married to some random blonde. How did he pay for the fancy ring? He used money taken from the peep show of course. Vince knows the mob will eventually want to collect. For now Vince still finds solace in the arms of  Abby (Margarita Levieva), now working the bar at his new club, Club 366.

Much attention will be given to how this is James Franco’s first true return to mainstream media, after facing allegations of sexual misconduct in the wake of the #MeToo movement. One can’t be too sure, but maybe this is why Frankie and Vince are slightly more low key in the season premiere. His Vince is a somber wanderer here, looking for Frankie but getting pulled into cars by gangsters warning him not to screw up a good thing.

“The Deuce” returns with the look and atmosphere of a 70s New York vibrant with corruption and ambition. It is also a fascinating character study of various personalities. It opens as a slow burner, but there is a thrill to wanting to see just where it’s going.

The Deuce” season two premieres Sept. 9 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.