The Deuce returns this weekend to a different world.
We last saw new episodes of HBO's acclaimed sex industry drama in October 2017 — right around the time actress Alyssa Milano encouraged followers who had experienced sexual harassment and assault to tweet "me too." This movement launched a cascade of allegations that would eventually sweep up the likes of Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, Mario Batali — and The Deuce's marquee star, James Franco.
Franco has long denied any allegations of sexual misconduct, and after investigating, HBO declared itself "comfortable" proceeding with the second season of The Deuce, Franco and all. Nonetheless, the show now finds itself deeply complicated by its forthright messages of women's empowerment and its potential real-life contradictions in a post-#MeToo landscape.
Created by George Pelecanos and David Simon, who had previously teamed on The Wire, The Deuce follows the fledgling sex industry from its gritty origins on the corners of New York's 42nd Street in the early 1970s to the launch of what would become America's gangbusters pornography business. The show is the deserving successor to The Wire, complete with Simon's best trademarks: snappy dialogue, dozens of fleshed-out characters, and, of course, a union subplot.
While an HBO show about porn elicits a deserving eye-roll — any way to get naked women on screen in a drama, am I right? — the show is careful to avoid making what its creators described as "the boys' version of the sex industry." To that end, the show has been a success: Half of the first season is directed by women, and the team brought gay and trans writers on board to help incorporate multiple perspectives and experiences. Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is the standout actress in her role as the independent prostitute Candy, spoke to veterans of sex work and the porn industry to better develop her character.
Franco's role in the show has always been more complicated — and is now even more so.
The actor plays twin brothers Frankie and Vincent, who act as each other's foils: Frankie, the gambler, embraces Manhattan's underbelly, while Vincent attempts to stay relatively clean even as he puts his enterprising mind to making money. In the show's pilot, after Vincent orders his waitresses into leotards to attract business, he receives pushback from a college girl at his bar, Abby (Margarita Levieva): "Ever wonder what it's like for them to be objectified?" she challenges him. "I don't know what they think," Vincent replies. "All I know is they made more money tonight than in any night here in months." Lines like that are likely to sit uneasily with audiences now.
Some of this is due to our new society-wide focus on sexual misconduct and exploitation. But much of it is also simply about Franco himself.
Between The Deuce's first and second seasons, Franco was accused by five women of "behavior they found to be inappropriate or sexually exploitative," including allegedly taking advantage of his position as their teacher or mentor to pressure them to appear nude in his films. The allegations were published in January by the Los Angeles Times, and quoted one actress claiming that when filming an orgy scene in Franco's feature film, The Long Home, in 2015, the actor "removed a clear plastic guard that covered [three of the actresses'] vaginas — and continued to simulate the sex act with no protection." The accuser's account was verified by another one of the actresses at the shoot.
Other women who were Franco's students said the actor would become angry when they refused to do a shoot topless, and Violet Paley, an aspiring filmmaker who was in a relationship with Franco, said he pressured her to perform a sex act in her car despite it making her uncomfortable. A sixth woman, Franco's former assistant, Tatjana Liepelt, told Inside Edition that Franco had called her "retarded" and a "b---h" in text messages.
Cute #TIMESUP pin James Franco. Remember the time you pushed my head down in a car towards your exposed penis & that other time you told my friend to come to your hotel when she was 17? After you had already been caught doing that to a different 17 year old?
— Violet Paley (@VioletPaley) January 8, 2018
Franco has never faced any legal charges for any of his alleged wrongdoing. And he has categorically denied the allegations. He defended himself on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, saying "the things that I heard that were on Twitter are not accurate. But I completely support people coming out and being able to have a voice because they didn't have a voice for so long. So I don't want to shut them down in any way." HBO's programming head, Casey Bloys, confirmed the network "felt comfortable" proceeding with the second season of The Deuce, and with Franco's role in it, after their investigation. "We talked to the executive producers, to Maggie [Gyllenhaal], the actors and actresses on the set," Bloys said of their process.
Simon in particular has vehemently defended Franco, telling The Globe and Mail in a contentious interview: "[E]verybody involved in this program has given precise and careful review, almost a Talmudic review, of what was in those articles. What was said, what was alleged." Sarah Tither-Kaplan, one of the women who accused Franco, tweeted in response: "David Simon and HBO never spoke to any of us."
Simon is right to note that every claim against Franco remains "alleged." The actor has, after all, never been charged with a crime. But at the very least, Franco has been very publicly accused by several women of being a real creep, and possibly much worse. This sort of predatory behavior by men who lie in wait for women who can be easily taken advantage of is something The Deuce is actively trying to explore and critique.
"The content of The Deuce is, I believe, anticipatory of the #MeToo movement even before we knew there was going to be a hashtag or slogan," Simon told The Globe and Mail. I believe he's right. This is part of why the show works, and doesn't bend toward becoming exploitative itself.
But this becomes quite difficult when the show's lead actor is accused of this very kind of behavior himself. If the makers of The Deuce really believe in their message of female empowerment, it's time they applied those same principles to their casting choices too.