In its third and final season, which began on Monday, The Deuce is racing toward its bleak and inevitable coda. Simon and George Pelecanos, the show’s co-creator, are connecting all the ways in which the sex industry has changed since 1971, the year the series opens on. All of Simon’s most didactic impulses are on display in the early episodes of the new season, which riff on the cynicism of pornography in 1985; the efforts by Mayor Ed Koch to clean up Times Square; anti-porn protests in the feminist movement; and the AIDS crisis. More than ever, the show feels like a homily on the vulnerability of humans as commodities, whether they’re sex workers, film directors, or grunts in a mafiosi power pyramid. But something, at this point in the show’s life, has been lost. There’s no charge in the way two people look at each other anymore; no sense of ambition, no motivation, even. Desire has left the Deuce.
In some ways, this is a natural response both to the show’s chronological leaps and to its subject matter. Season 1 started in 1971, as gangsters and pimps jostled for control of the Times Square sex business and pornography was innocent enough to employ Campbell’s potato soup as a prop; Season 2 jumped to 1977, at the height of porn’s so-called Golden Age. While The Deuce has made no efforts to age its characters or even advance their biographies much during the 14-year period it spans, it makes clear in Season 3 that a decade and a half selling sex (in one way or another) has taken a lot from them. Vinnie is mired in mob life, beaten down and joyless. The adult film star Lori (Emily Meade), fresh out of rehab, seems almost comically bored by the idea of getting back to work. Paul (Chris Coy) appears barely able to generate an emotional response to the fact that his partner is dying of AIDS. Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has always been the show’s most fascinating character, radiating sparks of creative energy as she finds her niche as a director, but even she’s lost momentum. The only character still marshaling any enthusiasm is Frankie, Vinnie’s feckless twin (also played by Franco), so unaltered in his smirking ability to irritate that he’s starting to feel like The Deuce’s very own Dorian Gray.
The Deuce is still an interesting show in the first three episodes; it’s still sporadically a funny one. (“My client wants to change her line,” Lori’s agent says in one scene, in which Lori objects to her dialogue while playing a high-school teacher. “She can know who George Washington is and still fuck.”) But a side effect of the show’s state of ennui is that its most compelling element—a willingness to explore the strange humanity of its characters’ kinks and impulses—has been left behind. When Eileen meets a stranger (Corey Stoll) in a bar, the scene offers no sense of what she sees in him, no sharp spike of interest. A later episode makes clear what she doesn’t want from him, but never what she does. When Vinnie takes his ex-wife (Zoe Kazan) back to his apartment to have sex with her, the scene is so rote and dismal that it feels almost like an obligation. Abby (Margarita Levieva), a curious, empathetic NYU dropout and advocate for sex workers who’s been stuck running the same deadbeat bar for 14 years, has a similar lack of chemistry with a street artist she meets at a gallery, even though it’s obvious where their storyline is headed.