At the very beginning of the first episode of The Deuce, right after the static crackle of the HBO logo and the sounds of traffic and subway trains coming into soft focus, a man and a woman sat at a bar. He stroked her hair; “C’mon,” he cajoled. “Ask your wife,” she replied, tartly. He leaned in to nuzzle her neck; she inhaled sharply and gripped his arm in response. “Gimme something I can’t get at home,” he murmured.
Once, The Deuce was about desire. Being a David Simon show, it was about capitalism as the infernal Pac-Man eating everything it came into contact with—the sex trade, art, souls, even the grimiest stretch of Midtown Manhattan real estate. But it was about human desire, too, and it understood exactly how strange and damaging and, yes, lucrative that impulse could be—from the couple in the opening scene (who were never seen again) to the show’s rich ensemble of characters. In the feature-length pilot episode, Darlene (played by Dominique Fishback) was attacked in her doorway in what seems to viewers like a violent sexual assault by a man who called her a “fucking whore.” Later, it turned out that they were only role-playing and that this misogynistic eruption was actually his fantasy. The pilot also introduced Vincent Martino (James Franco), whom it showed bristling at his emerging awareness that the world saw him as a loser. Vinnie started the season as a character who only wanted to take care of his family and ended it as someone whose urge to be respected had poisoned his life in ways he was only beginning to understand.
In its third and final season, which began on Monday, The Deuce is racing toward its bleak and inevitable coda. Simon and George Pelecanos, the show’s co-creator, are connecting all the ways in which the sex industry has changed since 1971, the year the series opens on. All of Simon’s most didactic impulses are on display in the early episodes of the new season, which riff on the cynicism of pornography in 1985, the efforts by Mayor Ed Koch to clean up Times Square, anti-porn protests in the feminist movement, and the AIDS crisis. More than ever, the show feels like a homily on the vulnerability of humans as commodities, whether they’re sex workers, film directors, or grunts in a mafiosi power pyramid. But something, at this point in the show’s life, has been lost. There’s no charge in the way two people look at each other anymore; no sense of ambition; no motivation, even. Desire has left the Deuce.
In some ways, this is a natural response both to the show’s chronological leaps and to its subject matter. Season 1 started in 1971, as gangsters and pimps jostled for control of the Times Square sex business and pornography was innocent enough to employ Campbell’s potato soup as a prop. Season 2 jumped to 1977, at the height of porn’s so-called golden age. While The Deuce has made no efforts to age its characters or even advance their biographies much during the 14-year period it spans, it makes clear in Season 3 that a decade and a half of selling sex (in one way or another) has taken a lot from them. Vinnie is mired in mob life, beaten down and joyless. The adult-film star Lori (Emily Meade), fresh out of rehab, seems almost comically bored by the idea of getting back to work. Paul (Chris Coy) appears barely able to generate an emotional response to the fact that his partner is dying of AIDS. Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has always been the show’s most fascinating character, radiating sparks of creative energy as she finds her niche as a director, but even she’s lost momentum. The only character still marshaling any enthusiasm is Frankie, Vinnie’s feckless twin (also played by Franco), so unaltered in his smirking ability to irritate that he’s starting to feel like The Deuce’s very own Dorian Gray.
The Deuce is still an interesting show in the first three episodes; it’s still sporadically a funny one. (“My client wants to change her line,” Lori’s agent says in one scene, in which Lori objects to her dialogue while playing a high-school teacher. “She can know who George Washington is and still fuck.”) But a side effect of the show’s state of ennui is that its most compelling element—a willingness to explore the strange humanity of its characters’ kinks and impulses—has been left behind. When Eileen meets a stranger (Corey Stoll) in a bar, the scene offers no sense of what she sees in him, no sharp spike of interest. A later episode makes clear what she doesn’t want from him, but never what she does. When Vinnie takes his ex-wife (Zoe Kazan) back to his apartment to have sex with her, the scene is so rote and dismal that it feels almost like an obligation. Abby (Margarita Levieva), a curious, empathetic NYU dropout and and advocate for sex workers who’s been stuck running the same deadbeat bar for 14 years, has a similar lack of chemistry with a street artist she meets at a gallery, even though it’s obvious where their story line is headed.
All of which leaves The Deuce in an odd place. It’s a show about the sex industry that’s lost its curiosity and interest in sex itself. Instead, the series is now entirely a parable about how capitalism depreciates human beings and distorts American culture. It’s a show about labor, not lust. It’s also a metaphor for the reliable soullessness of the entertainment industry, which is reasonably ironic, given that television has lent its time and money to Simon to make art for much of his career, and seemingly demanded little by way of ratings in return. At the end of Season 2, Eileen’s arthouse adult film, Red Hot, was a critical and financial hit, but by 1985, advances in technology mean that porn is rapidly moving toward what it is now—endless loops of hard-core action that degrade and abuse women (not only women, but mostly women), available at the touch of a button.
The Deuce is making a good point about how anything that sells—sex most of all—tends to poison the people who profit the most from it. The cost of doing any kind of business, it emphasizes, should never be human lives and livelihoods. By 1985, its characters have seen this firsthand, and have sacrificed—or had stolen—portions of their souls at the altar of commerce. I appreciate that The Deuce is telling this story, and that it encourages people to consider how the perpetual human urge to have or to watch others have sex is an ethical minefield. But I miss the way the show used to let us connect with its characters and the human frailty of their desires. They used to feel things; now they’re numb, parts of a storytelling engine that is running its way toward an important, but impassive, end.