‘The Deuce’ Enters the Adult Film World of the ’80s in Its Deeply Empathetic Final Season

In the final season of HBO’s “The Deuce” the world of adult film becomes a metaphor for how time changes everything. Leaping once again across the years, the show is now set in New York City in the Reagan era, brimming with 1980s excess and technological shifts. But even as VHS replaces film and alters the entire porn business, the main characters are still seeking love and meaning, worth and respect. Like the best dramas about this kind of subject matter, the setting is merely a stage for very human emotions.

We are now in 1985 and the adult entertainment business is shifting from the terrain of 42nd street’s infamous heyday of XXX theaters. Video is the new revolution with pros and amateurs now competing for equal attention in the market. Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who rose from star to director, is having difficulty adjusting since she sees herself as a true auteur. There’s just no money to be made anymore in artsy porn. Over on the club scene, Vince (James Franco) is starting to look tired of all the wild partying and begins to miss the simple pleasures of domestic life, maybe even his ex-wife. Of course, Vince is pretty tied up with the mafia, so making sudden moves isn’t so easy, especially when he gets into the drug trade. His twin brother Frankie is the one more attuned to the changing winds, fully immersing himself in the new video adult market and recruiting amateurs to produce content. A recovering Lori (Emily Meade) has moved to Los Angeles, where she begins to work in the San Fernando Valley porn scene. The new gigs become a way for Lori to also start demanding more respect as a talent on set. But as the year rolls on other lives are touched by urgent cultural changes and the emergence of the AIDS epidemic.

For its three seasons, including this one, “The Deuce” proves that you can still make absorbing TV without having to dip into lavish budgets. This intimate show has always been primarily about the lives being lived in its world. Its characters have grown and developed through cultural moments and the very experiences of pain and heartbreak. With a strong sense of story, creators David Simon and George Pelecanos (both veterans of “The Wire”) have brought the narrative to life with a gritty yet elegant aesthetic. In this season, “The Deuce” becomes another journey into ’80s nostalgia, but without being tacky. Yes, scenes are graced with songs by Echo and the Bunnymen, and Blondie gives the opening credits a rush, but it is all an environment for the main players. 

The ’80s ambiance becomes a symbol for how everyone is being forced to reassess themselves. Candy believes she has reached a status of respectability in her field, making “fem erotica” where the women are the dominant participants in the sex scenes. When VHS arrives she finds herself sitting alone with producer Harvey (David Krumholtz) at an adult entertainment convention, puzzled by the rise of straight-to-video porn stars. In an echo of movies like “Boogie Nights,” Harvey has to battle with Candy to change their style into something more “profitable.” Then Candy’s life takes a new turn when she meets a Wall Street businessman (played by Corey Stoll) at a bar, who draws suspicion because he actually treats her like a human being. Their first dates are not written with any kind of rehashed corniness, just a woman who has seen everything who finds herself having dinner with a man who isn’t judgmental. It’s an example of how “The Deuce” works so well, because the porn world isn’t approached with pyro melodrama or trashy sensationalism. It’s quite sexual for sure, with at least one porn set scene that even pushes cable TV boundaries, but never immature. These characters live, struggle and argue like erotic versions of indie filmmakers, or any other hungry artist. In a sense, it’s even more difficult, as in the scene where Candy explains to her new boyfriend’s circle what it is she does for a living. It’s not the same as saying you’re a writer for “The Wire.” Another moment, where Candy tells Stoll the story of losing her kid, demonstrates why this show will endure as one of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s greatest roles. 

Lori’s storyline is also a statement on the rigors of maintaining your dignity at any workplace. She settles in California but becomes more militant about an actress’s rights when she’s asked to perform uncomfortable acts (one involving corn). Abby (Margarita Levieva) also tries to become more of a fighter for others, including a character who is taken down by AIDS. She marches in the streets. Like FX’s “Pose,” the AIDS epidemic is treated here as the specter of an era. There is no escaping the socio-personal implications. A funnier storyline follows Bobby (Chris Bauer) who has been sleeping with quite a lot of women at the club scene and becomes paranoid that he might be infected, asking others to check a bump on his posterior. The more somber angle to this element in the season’s narrative involves Paul (Chris Coy), who witnesses, from behind his bar, as AIDS changes everything about his world, particularly the life of his partner Todd (Aaron Dean Eisenberg). Together these characters provide some of the season’s most heartfelt exchanges. Another, yet more quietly powerful, storyline involves Melissa (Olivia Luccardi) suddenly finding her absentee abusive father (David Morse), knocking at her door and begging for redemption.

And then there’s of course James Franco. Slightly sidelined a bit last season in the shadow of #MeToo allegations, Franco becomes something more reflective this time around. Frankie tries to expand his porn business but faces unintended consequences when the mob gets upset over his ventures, more so when a pedophile infiltrates the tapes he puts out. Vince has a more emotionally engaging story this season. His open relationship with Abby is becoming a chore, and it’s obvious he misses a more stable domestic life, even as he stands in the corner of his nightclub watching all the revelry. Vince is beginning to feel that the party’s hangover. He wants a real home and partner. How he begins to answer this search is another crowning dramatic turn in this final season. And while the porn stars are trying to find respect in their field, the brothers are also fighting for their independence from the mafia. Frankie has no qualms about telling mafia honcho Rudy (Michael Rispoli) to get lost when Rudy calls him out for selling his tapes without a kickback for the cosa nostra.

In its final season, “The Deuce” leaves the scene with an impressive, bittersweet sense of drama. We never had to fully agree with the lifestyles of its characters to respect them. This is a show that understood that all of life is a hustle, no matter your career choice. We could have well continued following these characters into the ’90s and beyond, because they would never be out of place.

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