TV: ‘The Deuce’ – sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll

In ‘The Deuce,’ everybody is dirty. But there’s a lot of different colours of dirt in the world. 

The latest addictively complex drama from the creators of ‘The Wire,’ ‘The Deuce’ chronicles the gritty, sleazy world of the 1970s New York sex industry. 

‘The Deuce’ balances an enormous cast and talented actors by giving everyone a moment to shine – from the prostitutes doing the dirty work to the detectives working the street to the pimps rapidly getting rolled by a changing world – but in the end, ‘The Deuce’ is mostly the story of Eileen, aka ‘Candy,’ (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a street girl turned porn film entrepreneur. 

It’s not for the tame – and quite possibly the most sexually explicit show I’ve ever seen on TV, with equal opportunity male-and-female nudity galore (seriously, this show features a LOT of penis, folks). But while sex is the currency of ‘The Deuce,’ like ‘The Wire’, the show is really about the use of power, with an added theme of oppressed women finding their voice in a world of overbearing men. 

Season 2, which is now airing, bounds into 1977 with a fiery on-the-nose take of Elvis Costello’s “This Year’s Girl” anchoring the opening credits – “You think you all own little pieces of this year’s girl,” the song goes. It (mostly) leaves the street-level struggles of Season 1 behind for a cast dealing with a changing world and morality, and sex moving from the shadows into the mainstream.  

As the camera rolls on ‘Red Hot,’ Candy’s feminised pornographic take on the ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ fairy tale, we’re rooting for Candy. Some of the hardest scenes to watch in season 1 of ‘The Deuce’ showed how brutally women were treated by men, by pimps, johns, cops. The show leverages that pain into power in Season 2.

Maggie Gyllenhaal has always been an actor whose eyes are her strongest strength. They have a default melancholy cast to them, a sadness that makes her smile in moments of triumph shine even brighter. This is by far her best work yet. 

The biggest pleasure of ‘The Deuce,’ besides the dazzling allure of its debauched swinging ‘70s style, is watching Candy grow from a compromised object with tattered but firm principles into a budding creator turning her life’s pains into art. More than halfway into the show’s planned three-season run, who knows where she might go? 

It’s a dirty world, ‘The Deuce’ tells us, but unlike the more fatalistic view of ‘The Wire,’ it holds out a glimmer of hope that things can change, too. Maybe.

“Never knowing it’s a real attraction

All these promises of satisfaction

While she’s being bored to distraction being this year’s girl”

– Elvis Costello