The Long Cable Box-Step Orgy: Rewatching "The Deuce"




DECEMBER 31, 1984. The opening episode of The Deuce’s final season. Andrea Martino (played by Zoe Kazan) stands in a Times Square apartment with her estranged husband, Vincent Martino (played by one half of James Franco). He lights a cigarette, lifts the tonearm of a record player, and sets the stylus on Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music by Ray Charles. “I can’t stop loving you,” a chorus sings. “I’ve made up my mind / to live in memories / of the lonesome times,” Ray Charles responds. Andrea laughs at him, but also turns around in a tight wistful circle. Then, with each word trawling a Bay Ridge street corner along with it, she says, “I remember the night this was playin.” This countrypolitan hit — written by Don Gibson in 1957 and re-recorded by Charles at a Hollywood studio in 1962 — is itself a heavy-eyed musical study in nostalgia. The sound of the choir and Marty Paich’s string arrangement together have always sounded to me like the sonic analog of technicolored images. Andrea and Vincent reminisce about listening to the song on the radio in his father’s ’63 Impala and begin to dance, each silhouetted in turn by the winter sun pouring white light into the smoke-tinged room.

Vince: “This is real music right here.”

Andrea: “You’re old.”

Ray: “So I’ll just live my life / in dreams of yesterday.”

¤

Last fall, while HBO’s The Deuce was wrapping up its story about the “Golden Age of Porn,” critics were eulogizing the “Golden Age of TV.” The show itself even seemed to acknowledge the parallel. In its season three opener, Candy and Harvey attend the Adult Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, with the bleeding edge of mid-’80s convergence culture — camcorders, home media, and MTV — on full display. From our vantage point, the scene plays like an antecedent to today’s cable networks, media conglomerates, and digital streaming. As in 1984, so in 2019. Approaching the year 2020, the death knell also made clean decadal sense. “2019 will surely be remembered in retrospect as a dividing line,” Alison Herman correctly predicted at the time, “the near side of which will be filled with well-financed streaming services like the impending HBO Max.” Review and prevision. But then HBO Max launched amid an industry-pausing global pandemic, and between the network’s deep roster of shows, its Turner Classic Movies library, scattershot Criterion selections, and touchstones of ’90s TV, there was hardly anywhere to look other than backwards. But even this wasn’t new.

In his book Retromania, Simon Reynolds writes, “there has never been a society in human history so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of its own immediate past.” A glance back at the last half-decade of HBO original programming alone is enough to corroborate his claim. And rewatching shows with the “prestige” franchise tag, in particular, is like practicing a kind of cultural necromancy with nearly all of the so-called “American Century.”

In the summer of 2015, on August 16 — the date Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley, and Aretha Franklin all died — rock music’s working-class chronicler of U.S. history, Bruce Springsteen, began accompanying Mayor Wasicsko’s tragic fight to desegregate public housing in Show Me a Hero. The next year, HBO put out the risible, yet admittedly entertaining, retro opera Vinyl, about a cocaine-faced record executive gallivanting through the dirty streets and decadent business suites of 1970s NYC. Then Westworld started running Radiohead and Nirvana songs through player pianos in an AI re-enactment of the Wild West. The Deuce then premiered in 2017. Just as The Deuce was closing out its three-year run, Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen reimagined an alternate history of policing in the U.S. where Nostalgia comes in pill form. In the margins of True Detective season three existed a master’s thesis on heavy metal, Dungeons & Dragons, and the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and ’90s. This year, the network brought Perry Mason — TV’s original one-hour weekly — back to life in a post-WWI Los Angeles reeling from the Great Depression. And David Simon also recently delivered The Plot Against America, a six-part miniseries adapted from Philip Roth’s novel (and featuring another stellar performance by Zoe Kazan) that follows an alternate history of the U.S. during WWII, where radio-genic Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh demagogues his way to the presidency on a nativist, pro-fascist, “America First” platform. Poignant and alarmingly prescient, especially in its final 18 minutes, The Plot is a staggering allegory for the country’s current political dynamics that feels at times like a counterfactual history being actualized in real time.

Simon’s other recent period piece, The Deuce, is also a striking work of dramatic retrospection.

Whereas Show Me a Hero and The Plot Against America play like chamber pieces with world-historical implications, The Deuce is a maximalist show about the social milieu that gave rise to the adult film industry between 1972 and 1985. From punk and disco to peep shows and VCRs, part of the show’s allure does come from its retro-chic representation of a romanticized past where transgression was cheaper and supposedly in greater supply. But unlike Vincent (and Ray Charles), The Deuce doesn’t necessarily long for the halcyon days of recent history. Nonetheless, if realism — the stylistic topos of prestige dramas, even at their most fantastical — often justifies the portrayal of sex and graphic violence on television, so too does historical distance. “Setting the show in the glitzy past of 1970s Times Square,” Kelly Coyne writes, “allows for a nostalgic romanticism that absolves us from the guilt of watching.” Additionally, however, the show also makes sure to confront viewers with the guilt and gilt of this allure, at both its lowliest moments (e.g., the villeinage parlor scenes) and its most absurd heights (e.g., when Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock”—that dullest of faux-defiance hard rock anthems—blares from a boombox in a coke-dusted hotel suite filled with chaperoned call girls and young stockbrokers, several of whom will be arrested for insider trading by season’s end).

The Deuce also unfolds across a latticework of peripheral details where myriad cultural histories exist just beyond the dazzling marquees lining 42nd Street: when Curtis Mayfield first sings, “If there’s a hell below, we’re all gonna go,” in season one; when an editor at the Amsterdam News decries “those goddamn ghetto flicks out there now, everybody cheering for the Pusherman,” referencing the blaxploitation classic Super Fly; when NYC musician Garland Jeffreys performs “96 Tears” at the Hi-Hat, a song written and originally recorded by ? and the Mysterians, whose sound and style motivated Creem magazine’s Dave Marsh to first use the term “punk rock” (in popular print) while describing the band; when the British punk outfit, The Damned, play the Hi-Hat six years later; when Paul dances on LSD to “Melting Pot” by Booker T. and the M.G.’s at David Mancuso’s proto-discotheque The Loft, then Abby and Pilar go dancing at Paradise Garage where Larry Levan is spinning “Go Bang #5” by Dinosaur L (Arthur Russell) a decade and a half on; when NYPD officers raid an adult theater showing Boys In the Sand; when Tod, dying of AIDS, performs in Martin Sherman’s play Bent, about Nacht der langen Messer, the Dachau death camp, and the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany; even when Lori takes a gig as a hard rock video vixen at a time when music videos were first mainstreaming lewd entertainment on MTV.

That one could continue to enumerate and pursue similar examples is of course a mark of accomplishment for a labor-oriented show so explicitly concerned with the ways and means of cultural production, even beyond The Deuce’s own historical timeframe. (Rewatching season three at home in Minneapolis this past summer, another particular example stood out: when Grand Wizard Theodore’s “Subway Theme” from Wild Style is heard at an art gallery fundraiser for a lawsuit against the eleven New York City Transit Police officers who murdered a twenty-five-year-old graffiti artist, Michael Stewart, while in custody.) By telling a story that’s as much about cultural memory and mass entertainment as it is economies of pleasure, urban accumulation-by-dispossession practices, and the toll of capitalism’s ever-onward march, The Deuce’s three-season story arc presents audiences with another iteration of what Linda Williams, in her study of The Wire, identifies as an “institutional melodrama,” where counterpoint storytelling works to lay bare the often antagonistic relationships between industry, institution, and human actor. By embracing the most entertaining aspects of serialized television’s narrative form, Williams argues, an institutional melodrama can, over time, produce “the dramatic recognition of good” while resisting “the simplistic vilification” of evil common to classical melodrama. Not without its ironies, then, The Deuce trafficked in this moral ambiguity on a network that’s long been criticized for its scopophilic tendencies concerning explicit sex and sexual violence, from old popular late-nighters, like Real Sex, to more recent premier shows, most notably Game of Thrones.

¤

The Home Box Office cable channel launched in 1972, the same year adult cinema’s major box-office run began with the breakout success of Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door. When the “porno chic” era depicted in The Deuce ended in the mid-80s, the Manhattan-based pay cabler was just beginning to produce original content. At the same time, Cinemax, a channel owned by HBO, Inc., launched its skin-deep “Friday After Dark” block. Soon after, HBO established its own “after-hours” programming with the documentary-style series Real Sex, which ran thirty-three episodes starting in 1990. The show’s first installment was titled “How to Strip (For Your Man),” a didactic theme with a long cultural lineage.

Over the next decade, shows like Dream On worked sex scenes into the classic sitcom model. Then, after the FCC established its current “parental guidelines” system in 1997, HBO originals like Oz and The Sopranos started convincingly earning their TV-MA ratings (particularly the “S” and “V” sub-ratings). During this time, the network also brought explicit sex to the reality TV ecosystem with Taxicab Confessions. In 2004, the miniseries Pornucopia focussed on the California porn industry with interviews and behind-the-scenes access. (Stormy Daniels appeared in five of the six episodes — relevance forthcoming.) Then the series Cathouse began looking at life in a Las Vegas brothel. A few years later, Real Sex aired its final episode, “Stocks Down, Sex Up,” about sex workers affected by the economic recession of 2008. Even after production ceased, HBO’s regular “Late Night” lineup remained on the air for ten more years. Then, in 2018, shortly after AT&T acquired the entertainment behemoth WarnerMedia, which owns Home Box Office, Inc., HBO pulled its after-hours programming sotto voce. The network stopped airing episodes on TV, removed the shows from its online content libraries, and when HBO Max launched in May of 2020, the “Late Night” tab was a thing of the past.

Back in 1985 — the expiry of porn’s golden age — an HBO subscription ran $12.95 per month.

In the closing minutes of The Deuce, having jumped to May of 2019, Vincent flips through TV channels inside a Times Square hotel room, and we hear a few bars of the Game of Thrones theme song just before he briefly surveys the on-demand “adult” movies, priced at $12.95 per rental.

The meta-exegesis goes further still. By this logic, within the show’s own story world, the first two seasons of The Deuce have already aired on HBO, and season three is currently being produced and will premiere five months later. This sleight-of-hand time warp is important because, due to forces both internal and external, over its three-year run, The Deuce’s creators wound up incorporating the historical conditions of the show’s own production into their story, both on and off screen.

In October 2017, only a few weeks into the show’s first season, journalists Jodi Cantor and Megan Twohey at The New York Times, and Ronan Farrow, writing for The New Yorker, published their exposés on Harvey Weinstein and the aiding-and-abetting structures within the entertainment-industrial complex. Soon after, at the urging of actress Emily Meade, who played Lori Madison, the show’s producers hired Alicia Rodis, co-founder of Intimacy Directors International. Then, before production began on season two, HBO conducted an internal investigation after multiple women came forward in the press to accuse James Franco of past sexual misconduct, including former students at his defunct Studio 4 acting school where he taught a $750 master class on performing sex scenes. Soon after, press coverage from trade magazines to major news outlets started regularly focussing on Rodis’ work as the show’s Intimacy Coordinator, including the ways she worked with actors on any scene containing nudity, simulated sex, or intimate physical contact; helped with creative decisions and choreography to make the scenes safe or even look more real; and arbitrated contract negotiations wherever consent was concerned. Similarly, actress Margaret Judson wrote about the ways the #MeToo movement influenced her experience preparing for a scene that was itself staged on the set of a porn shoot within the show. Maggie Gyllenhaal, too, talked in interviews about why she negotiated with the show’s executives to assure a producer credit before agreeing to play the role of Candy in order to maintain a share of creative control on a show fundamentally about sex in the workplace.

Having long produced work that champions unions and less glamorous trades, this paratextual focus on organized labor and below-the-line laborers intersected squarely with David Simon & Co.’s larger political project. Meanwhile, on the show, the behind-the-scenes work of Rodis, Meade, Judson, Gyllenhaal and others was put into further relief each time Lori confronted her exploitative agent, Kiki, about contracts, consent, and, in one instance, fresh ovuliferous produce. Or whenever Candy and her dramatic foil, Harvey, argued about aesthetics, commerce, and the mediation of sex on screen.

Which is all to say nothing of how, from 1970s Manhattan real estate to 2016’s Access Hollywood tape, the specter and spectacle of the current U.S. president loomed over a show about endemic political corruption and the entertainment industry. I’ll limit my examples.

Between The Deuce’s first and second seasons alone, the following three things happened: (1) In January 2018, The Wall Street Journal reported that Michael Cohen paid $130,000 in hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential election. (2) The next month, Ronan Farrow, again in The New Yorker, published former Playboy model Karen McDougal’s account of her affair with the president in a story about lawyers, NDAs, and shell companies that read a lot like Kafka’s unfinished novel where shadowy officials seeking sexual companionship call village women to “The Castle,” that “vast, soulless mechanism for the circulation of paper,” as literary critic Irving Howe described it. (3) In August, Cohen surrendered to the FBI before pleading guilty to eight criminal charges, including one count of campaign finance violation at the behest of “Individual 1.”

The Deuce season two then premiered Sunday, September 9. Three days later, Stormy Daniels confirmed on daytime television that her forthcoming memoir, Full Disclosure, would include details about her 2006 affair with the president. According to the statheads for Pornhub Insights, searches containing Daniels’ name spiked that week, as they did anytime the scandal made fresh headlines, often with upwards of two million hits per day. During her interview on 60 Minutes earlier that year, searches increased more than 2000%.

The absurdist quality of the Stormy Daniels story only increased as it unfolded. In large part because, amid nonstop news about psychosocial election interference and political crimes being conducted in plain sight, the scandal often felt old-fashioned, like when Watergate begetter G. Gordon Liddy suggested paying prostitutes to entrap Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign: “The girls would be high class and the best in the business,” he assured. It felt like a tragicomic farce and The Deuce acknowledged it as such. In season three, a poster for the 1982 hardcore film Stormy sets up the joke; after jumping to May 2019 in the series finale, a cable news headline about the president’s former lawyer going to prison provides the sad punchline.

Another cultural echo of similar vintage: One week after Stormy Daniels announced her memoir, the U.S. Senate momentarily suspended confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh after Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation of sexual assault was made public in The Washington Post. In the lunar news cycle that followed, the historical touchstone remained Anita Hill’s public testimony 27 years prior.

Back in 1991, mainstream America was still swimming in the wake of the Reagan administration’s Meese Commission on Pornography, a 35-chapter report on the potentially harmful effects of X-rated entertainment. Presented to the public in 1986, the Meese Commission advocated draconian legal restrictions and defended a punitive approach to censorship (that went far beyond age-based regulations) on the grounds that pornography was pure social corruption. So, just when the adult film industry was crossing its billion-dollar threshold in the U.S. alone, it was also becoming, as historian Whitney Strub writes, “a causal agent in alerting the New Right to the tremendous political capital of moralism and sanctimony.”

In the midst of this culture war, the nationally televised Hill-Thomas hearings were framed by the cultural logic of pornography and its discontents. At one point, Senator Orrin Hatch, during an oddly proleptic monologue about legal precedent, name-checked fabled black porn star Long Dong Silver, who had performed in adult videos with a prosthetic penis back in the 1980s, and who Hill said Clarence Thomas had mentioned on multiple occasions. However, Hatch’s reference—simultaneously a condemnation of adult films and a flirtation with racist stereotypes of black sexual menace—was actually a way to pathologize Hill herself. Slut-shaming by proxy. Then, with splendid televisual flair, Senator John Danforth suggested that Hill might suffer from “erotomania.” Sen. Danforth had received a written description of the delusional disorder from Dr. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist, co-author of the Meese Commission, and occasional consultant for Law & Order: Criminal Intent. All the while, Rose Jourdain, Angela Wright, and Sukari Hardnett, who had all come forward to support Hill, were kept off-camera by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Joe Biden. There’s currently a note on my desk reminding me that Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., many people’s current rosy-eyed hope for a return to the Golden Age of the DNC, was first elected to the U.S. Senate in the year 1972.

¤

I’ve been listening to Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music on repeat all afternoon while revising this essay’s opening vignette. In the early ’60s, on this now-classic album of covers and standards from the American songbook, Ray Charles worked to integrate popular music genres — most notably country, jazz, and rhythm and blues — as a means of demonstrating their shared cultural lineage. As a result, Modern Sounds’ precise blend of musical styles must’ve sounded like a political provocation to a de jure segregated America.

Despite the album’s sly radical impulse, on a TV show so defined by Seventies R&B, funk, disco, and punk, music by Ray Charles sounds almost anachronistic, like something out of a “Normal” Rockwell (as Vincent calls him) painting by comparison. At the same time, however, Modern Sounds is the only album among hundreds that gets two needle drops throughout the show. The use of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” during Andrea and Vincent’s moment of nostalgic reverie is itself a callback to The Deuce’s first season, when Vincent puts “Careless Love” on the Hi-Hat jukebox back in 1972 and the song plays over the season’s closing montage: “Oh, careless love / Love, please tell me / what have I done / for you to hurt me all in fun.” Modern Sounds has always been, to borrow words from Greil Marcus’ book The Dustbin of History, an “objective platform for a subjective revision of our relations to the past, the present, and the future.”

Time will tell to what degree The Deuce succeeded in reprising history to make it say something new. But for now, when I hear Modern Sounds in the show’s final season, one moment from “I Can’t Stop Loving You” in particular stands out. On an otherwise honey-toned album that moves both forwards and backwards in time, it’s perhaps not by chance that the line Ray Charles sings with more frightful pathos than any other is this one: “They say that time heals a broken heart / but time has stood still since we’ve been apart.” He even sings the line twice.

¤

 

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