Good intentions, a big budget, fabulous actors: David Simon’s new drama, The Deuce (26 September, 10pm), comes with all of these things, yet it remains strangely uninvolving. I thought at first that this might be because it’s about the sex industry, a realm that would seem to bring with it an inevitable chill, a certain deadness behind the eyes.
Two and a half hours in, I’m inclined to believe that it has to do with the writing, too. Simon (The Wire) and his collaborator George Pelecanos have in the past spoken about how they want their dramas to resemble novels, digressive and long-winded. The Deuce does indeed remind me of a novel: one whose author has researched his subject to within an inch of its life and now finds himself unable to leave out anything he has learned.
Simon’s interest in this series lies in the moment, some time in the 1970s, when the porn industry embarked on its noxious journey out into the open. When The Deuce begins, dirty movies are still the province of amateurs in basements who use Super 8 cameras to shoot almost cute films of women (moonlighting prostitutes, mostly) having Campbell’s potato soup squirted into their faces.
I haven’t seen the end yet, but it wouldn’t take a genius to guess that Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an entrepreneurial hooker who works without a pimp, will become a famous porn star. But however atmosphere-changing that era – Simon traces today’s virulent public misogyny right to its door – getting close to it involves what we might call some grey areas.
The show, for all its veritas, comes with its share of jaunty clichés, at least in the matter of the prostitutes who frequent New York’s 42nd Street (“the Deuce” was the nickname for 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). One of our tarts, Darlene (Dominique Fishback), has a heart so big that she can’t help but weep in the final moments of A Tale of Two Cities, a movie she watches with – here’s an even hoarier stereotype – a lonely old john.
This, though, is nothing compared to the way the writers depict the relationships between the women and their violent, controlling pimps. That moment in episode two when the charismatic dandy CC (Gary Carr, in a role that is likely to make him famous), gave his newest girl, Lori (Emily Meade), a grin-inducing orgasm: what were we supposed to make of it? I buy the idea that she and the others feel a perverse kind of love for their runners. But I draw the line at the notion that they’re turned on by them, too.
Beside The Deuce, Peter Moffat’s new drama, The Last Post (1 October, 9pm), looks like small fry: so very British, so make-do-and-mend. (A wobbly-looking CGI BOAC plane in its opening scene suggested to me that while Simon and co had, in budgetary terms, spent months coming over all bacchanalian in Fortnum & Mason, The Last Post’s producers had nipped out to Lidl.) But it has an immediacy that the US show lacks, being concerned not with grand themes – though Moffat’s script inevitably includes some rather laboured on-message references to terrorism – so much as with character and plot.
You might not watch it for its depiction of the now almost forgotten “Aden emergency” (in which Arab guerrillas rose up against British colonial rule in the protectorate, an uprising that led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of South Yemen). But you would for Jessica Raine’s snarling portrayal of Alison Laithwaite, a bored and sozzled forces wife.
Alison is a bitch, but our sympathy is with her. It is 100° in the shade, and her married quarters resemble a Portakabin into which someone has randomly plonked one or two bits of G Plan furniture.
Meanwhile, her depressed husband, Ed (Stephen Campbell Moore, brilliant as ever), a lieutenant in the Royal Military Police, has been passed over for the promotion that would have meant escape.
Mostly, though, we pity her because she is trapped, as all the wives are, in the 1950s, when back at home the 1960s are at their midpoint. Who can blame her if she longs, out in the dust and heat of the desert, to be allowed to swing a little herself?
This article appears in the 04 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer