The Deuce may be realizing that it’s bitten off more than it’s willing to chew—and its characters are realizing they don’t like the flavor of what they’ve ordered. That makes for some some messy reckoning in “There’s an Art to This,” which doesn’t necessarily shape itself into greatness, but lays the groundwork for honest, well-earned change. And with the best cold open the show’s had yet, the episode typifies its turbulent cultural moment with a hell of a punchline. The pimps are becoming obsolete. Porn starlet is now an entry-level position. And the people angling for change can boom or bust with ease.
If there’s one thing that “There’s an Art to This” knows about long-lasting industries, it’s that they didn’t start out the way they are now. Evolution brought them to this point, with the unnatural selection of capitalism pushing out ideas that didn’t line up with the powerful figures controlling the money. That can mean the way sex is sold, or the rules that separate peek joint from strip club. C.C. (Gary Carr) is being phased out, while everyone else is attempting to adapt.
When Paul (Chris Coy) realizes that his clientele needs protection, mob man Rudy (Michael Rispoli) sees his rival, Matty the Horse (Garry Pastore), move in on the territory, offering real protection and real complication for a guy just trying to keep his nose clean and his ambition alive. The same collision of worlds happens with Eileen (Maggie Gyllenhaal): Her son is now a burgeoning adolescent, she’s becoming a stable provider, and damn it, she wants to make some movies that matter. Despite the recent awards recognition that Harvey (David Krumholtz) and his company have garnered, it’s just not happening in this pornographic Roger Corman operation. Like those that graduated from the legendarily frugal producer’s “film school,” Eileen is moving on, trying to apply her hardscrabble skills to her own ideas. I’m not saying Eileen will become the Jonathan Demme of porn, but with the somewhat insulting help of slasher director Genevieve (Dagmara Domi?czyk), she could at least make advances in her sector instead of playing catch-up with the pros.
When we’re not watching porn, the action unsurprisingly fades. Frankie (James Franco), introduces a handsy policy to Show Land that doesn’t bode well for the safety of its girls and is immediately awful. This small scene is one of a few that feels like a needless tangent. Despite Chris Alston (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) being a hell of a good cop, acting-wise, his storyline and his cynical ex-partner keep my pulse slow. That’s what I would’ve said, too, about the relationship between Vincent (James Franco) and Abby (Margarita Levieva), until this episode gave it its best treatment yet.
For all the exciting, subversive, understated things that The Deuce can be and often is, it’s a miracle that a cross-generation romance where one party is James goddamn Franco somehow manages not to drag everything down. The pair’s trip to an amusement park, telling tales of groping in the darkness of its sandy underside—is, if anything, a sweet piece of reactionary nostalgia (Punks?! Retreat!) built around the development of real intimacy. Something deeper than horniess is building between these two. Something resembling domesticity.
It’s shown through ebbs and flows in trust and respect. Abby fangirls over a musician and runs off to help the sex workers Vincent profits from. Vincent remembers the name of the girl he brought down to kiss on the beach, and the fact that he knows she became a dental hygienist is the empathetic key to his character. So, too, is his paternal Skee-Ball instruction. The back-and-forth, culminating in an all-too-short baby shower scene, taps into the insecurities that come from affection. There’s only so much of this an episode can fit before becoming exhausting—especially when Franco gesticulates like he’s the Fonz—but “There’s an Art to This” is too choppy for any one storyline to be the problem.
Bits and pieces of Eileen, Paul, Lori (Emily Meade), and Bobby (Chris Bauer) flit by more like obligations than scenes. It’s like I want to delete their holiday newsletter from my inbox. But when the episode calms down and takes its time, “There’s an Art to This” allows us to appreciate performances like Gyllenhaal’s and Gbenga Akinnagbe’s as Larry, whose proud pitch to be a porn star is a bright spot. He’s taking the changing game into his own hands. That’s the polar opposite of a conversation Lori has at the bar, which is a heavy-handed diagnosis of the situation that we already know and already lived thanks to other scenes.
Unevenness aside, living in The Deuce is such a joy that even the most slapdash segments are worth powering through the velour fluff. It’s easy to take the incredible costumes and sets-within-a-set for granted because they seem so effortlessly lived-in, but the beautiful period clothing—and the rawness of a slightly-unbuttoned blouse here, or a misaligned dick sticking out of some briefs there—make the design of the show its best feature. Well, aside from Gyllenhaal howling at the climax of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’ “Li’l Red Riding Hood.” Nothing beats that.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.