If it's a truism that no one read Playboy "for the articles," it's also true that no one watches porn for the plot. But plot there is, and in spades: It's the pretext that makes the whole point of the thing — the climax — structurally necessary. What's striking about The Deuce — David Simon and George Pelecanos' series about the rise of the porn industry in 1970s New York — isn't just how artfully it avoids participating in the pornography it documents, but how stubbornly it resists the conventions of plot itself.
The series' resistance to the lures of porn and plot alike make you think a little harder about the role of plot, particularly at a moment in television when characters are routinely sacrificed to it (I'm looking at you, Game of Thrones). Plot is obviously there to structure a narrative experience; it's also there to generate and channel desire. Plot makes you want certain outcomes. It makes you root for certain people. It creates momentum and drive and introduces the possibility of satisfaction.
The Deuce opts out of all that. The characters are textured. The dialogue is great. Some of the acting (Maggie Gyllenhaal's and Dominique Fishback's especially) is transcendent. But the plot? The plot is minimal and meandering and fiddly. Guns on the mantle rarely go off.
Nor does the show fall in love with its seamy side, as both Simon and Pelecanos, veterans of The Wire, sometimes tend to do: There are no fascinating Stringer Bells here. The Deuce's mobsters are dull, something close to middle management. The pimps are boring assholes whose preening and minor luxuries are paid for in cruelty and exploitation. That doesn't mean they're not entertaining — they are, but they're pitiable too. Their power isn't admired; their bravado isn't celebrated. Even the ostensible hero — Vincent, played by James Franco — is reluctant, lackluster, even timid. For a show about happy endings, this isn't a universe where happy endings seem possible; nor — and this is key — does anyone expect them to be. Even the pimps' hopes are slim, their pleasures brief.
This show is less about plot than it is about its merchants: the people who know there's a market for desire and catharsis and work doggedly to meet it. As for their own desire? It rates pretty low on their scale of priorities; they've burned out on it. They know how cheap it is, and how little it matters.
There's a point in Sunday night's episode "I See Money" when Maggie Gyllenhaal's character Eileen (stage name Candy), sodden and exhausted, leaves the rainy streets to try working the movie theater. "Do you like movies?" one man asks her as a woman eats another woman out onscreen. "I love movies," she purrs, sticking out her chest. And as she's giving him a blowjob as he watches sex onscreen — in the kind of mega-meta-theatrical experience few people ever experience — she sees a rat next to her on the floor of the theater. She screams, leaves the film to recover and settle herself, and another man walks up. "You like movies?" he asks her. She stares at him, not just mute but so horrified she's even faintly amused. Her ability to muster the energetic fake-enthusiasm it takes to produce this plot over and over has drained out of her.
That's not necessarily surprising; shows about the entertainment industry — or comics, or any purveyor of Fun! — tend to have that burned-out quality to them. But sex is (to state the obvious) more carnal than plot; it's plot squared, so to speak. So if The Deuce is about movies and sex, it doubles that burnout too. Shorn of sentiment, weary of cheap engines like motive and stakes, it doesn't ask — as Abby does — why people do this. It simply registers that they do, and there's really no time for depression or despair. The Deuce's lack of interest in the particulars of human corrosion — the extent to which it spreads that out so there's no true protagonist — means the grime settles like a thin film over everyone without overwhelming the series or setting too grim a tone. There's a workaday feel to it. What it really documents is the massive effort that goes into cheap, quarter-a-peep pleasure. That's the plot.
When he reviewed Deep Throat back in 1973 (it makes a small appearance in The Deuce as well) Roger Ebert begins by addressing the vexed and changing landscape in which these kinds of films are shown and consumed. He notes that his pal Harold's viewing was interrupted by a police raid consisting of seven marked and four unmarked squad cars. The judge upheld the theater's right to show the film, so Ebert saw it two days later. He observes — critically — that the film is a little too hard-working:
It is all very well and good for Linda Lovelace, the star of the movie, to advocate sexual freedom; but the energy she brings to her role is less awesome than discouraging. If you have to work this hard at sexual freedom, maybe it isn't worth the effort. [Roger Ebert]
The work ethic depicted in The Deuce wasn't the only way this could have gone. There is, after all, no lack of drama in a story about sex work. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from Xaviera Hollander's book The Happy Hooker about her time running a brothel during this time:
Just then the cell gate cranked open, and the big black matron escorted in a fat white girl who was hobbling on crutches. The girl was all marked up with ulcers on her arms and legs and seemed to be dope-crazed. As the matron, in a kindly way, tried to ease her into one of the vacant seats, the girl yelled, "Take ya hands off me, ya big black dyke!" and hauled off, her crutch savagely ripping across the matron's head.
That was all we needed in this charged atmosphere, a racial explosion touched off by the handicapped whore. Girls started screaming and yelling; fists, arms, legs, and the crutches flew all over the place. My girls and I quickly moved for cover behind the urinal wall and waited to see what would happen next. [Xaviera Hollander, The Happy Hooker]
Here's a scene from a book on the Knapp Commission (an investigation into NYPD police corruption which features in The Deuce):
On one occasion, while Brian Bruh conversed with a madam in her living room, a balding, paunchy, middle-aged customer scurried through the room on all fours, naked. He was followed by one of the girls, who was holding a leash, the end of which was tied tightly around the gentlemen's testicles. As he crawled spiritedly along, she would yank on the leash and he would bark like a dog. He seemed to be having fun. [Michael F. Armstrong, They Wished They Were Honest]
These are the kinds of scenes one might reasonably expect to see in an HBO show like The Deuce. But it resists. It withholds. Formally as well as cinematically, The Deuce is unporn. It doesn't care about the plot. The money shot is beside the point. And that, really, is what makes The Deuce special: the extent to which it refuses to buy into the phenomenon it documents without condescending to it. Actors don't hate the audience, but neither are they of it. This show maintains that level of curiosity and alienation.
If men are the consumers of Playboy's fictions, this is a show about the producers; about what it's like to live backstage.