TV review: Maggie Gyllenhaal is phenomenal in season two of The Deuce

HBO's drama about 70s sex workers making the jump to porn deserves some awards season love

THE DEUCE (SEASON TWO) premieres September 9 on HBO Canada and streaming via TMN Go. Rating: NNNN

There’s a Weinstein moment in The Deuce that will knock the wind out of you for the sheer force of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance.

Her character, Candy, who opens the season in a Scorsese-esque tracking shot, is no longer a sex worker. Five years after the events of the first season, she’s successfully transitioned into becoming a porn director who occasionally hops in front of the camera.

She tries to sneak in some Easy Rider editing between money shots but struggles to fully realize her artistic ambitions and acquire the budgets to make them happen. Enter a Hollywood producer who, in a meeting with Candy, promises to write her a cheque – but after a blow job.

When Candy hears that casting-couch proposition, the camera holds on Gyllenhaal’s face for 15 seconds. That may sound brief but it feels like an eternity. So many emotions rush over Candy’s face in those 15 seconds: shock, anger, resistance and disappointment. Then there’s a realization that this is simply how it will be and an urgency to just take the offer before even that slips away. And finally, there’s a cool and nonchalant acceptance masking the heavy defeat.

There’s an entire journey, suggesting so much of what’s been talked about in the last year, captured in 15 seconds by Gyllenhaal’s tour-de-force performance.

That moment happens in episode three, which will air the weekend after the upcoming Emmys broadcast where The Deuce’s first season is criminally underrepresented. Despite being among my favourite series from last year, the show got zero nominations, not even for Gyllenhaal’s phenomenal work.

Perhaps voters couldn’t bring themselves around to watch a graphic-but-empathetic show about sex workers and pimps. And many have surmised that the accusations against James Franco made The Deuce easier to ignore a shame since Gyllenhaal’s work as both a star and producer was also ignored.

Franco doesn’t add much to The Deuce, even in the second season, of which critics were sent the first four episodes. His Vincent has always been functionary, a mob-backed facilitator managing bars and brothels, operating as a gravitational centre to tie together the show’s teeming ensemble, which also includes cops and the politicians hovering over them to rain down on Mayor Ed Koch’s street cleanup. Vincent’s twin brother Frankie (also played by Franco) is still a nuisance.


Courtesy of Bell Media

James Franco doesn’t add much to The Deuce, even in the second season.

The ensemble might be getting too big, and the first four episodes suffer some drag as a result, but that’s also a testament to creators David Simon and George Pelecanos’s no-character-remains-marginalized ethos. Thinking about the patience they demanded from us when setting up the puzzle pieces in The Wire is what makes me give this season the benefit of the doubt.

Here they concoct a deadly rivalry between mobsters competing for brothel real estate, while Franco’s Vincent is entertaining an exit strategy and a reluctant partnership is brewing between Lawrence Gilliard Jr.’s Detective Alston and the politicians looking to scrub the red light district clean before bringing in the “cranes and sheet rock.”

A character we thought to be gone makes a spine-tingling return. Meanwhile the primary pimps from the first season, Gbenga Akinnagbe’s Larry and Gary Carr’s C.C., forcefully cling to business while their girls clearly see an opportunity in pornography that doesn’t include them.

Carr’s volatile performance as C.C. is yet another that deserves accolades that will never come because the character is so vile.

C.C., wearing his pimp gear like armour, is that most fascinating brand of villain, the type whose sensitive side makes him all the more dangerous. Whenever he’s empathetic, he loses control. And whenever he loses control, he reinforces it the only way that has worked for him in the past: violently.

His masculinity is so tethered to not being vulnerable that he desperately defends it by preying on female vulnerability.

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