The New York of The Deuce (HBO) is one long since lost, swept away to erect high-rises for stockbrokers and celebrities. Dark, smoky, seamy, rough: George Pelecanos and David Simon’s new series is set, for the most part, in dim bars and grim tenements, or on the gray, garbage-strewn streets of midtown Manhattan; the brightest sources of light are marquees for The Conformist and Mondo Trasho, or the keys and fills of low-budget film sets at the dawn of modern porn. Perhaps the definitive composition in the pilot episode finds degenerate gambler Frankie Martino (James Franco) jaywalking through traffic just south of Times Square, a murky, wide-angle image more Blade Runner than Taxi Driver—as if The Deuce were determined to thrust past and future together, two points on the plot that correspond to the same line.
That our present is The Deuce’s future begins to explain the medium’s recent fascination with the Seventies, the meaning of which remains at arm’s length. Though we continue, in many cases incorrectly, to shoehorn the Fifties, Sixties and Eighties into simpler hermeneutics—the thesis, antithesis and synthesis of postwar American political movements, as it were—the Seventies, sitting astride revolution and counter-revolution, are more difficult to gloss. In fact, the decade’s central feature in the popular imagination might be its featurelessness: “Vietnam syndrome,” “malaise” and “stagflation,” among the other associations that come with its mention, suggest convalescence, as if the country had been prescribed bed rest after a nervous collapse. As Natasha Zaretsky illustrates in her indispensable history of the period, No Direction Home, the umbrella term for this feeling of frailty is “decline”—the decline of the family, the decline of morals, the decline of military power and economic might.
Perhaps this is the flavor of the Seventies that television is after, the sickly-sweet taste of nightmares and hangovers, the fear of falling that only ends when we hit the ground and wake up. In the second season of Fargo (FX), it assumes the form of faded allusions, to Jim Jones, gas shortages, Love Canal, Pol Pot; in HBO’s Vinyl, at least before it becomes a bland portrait of excess, it comes in the shape of a buckling building, brought down by the advent of punk. In I’m Dying Up Here (Showtime), the Seventies mow down comedians’ dreams with the force of a Sunset Strip bus; The Get Down (Netflix), gluttonous, stuffs the decade to bursting; F Is for Family (Netflix) animates it with a Rust Belt homage to Archie Bunker, as if to remind us that the majority that swept Richard Nixon into office was not so silent after all. The Deuce, aided by Simon and Pelecanos’ careful world-creation, captures the sentiment best: Candy (the magnificent Maggie Gyllenhaal), the sex worker-turned-pornographer at the series’ center, even pronounces “party” like “potty,” soiling the era’s decadence the moment the word passes her lips.
That the notion of “decline” should seduce us now is no surprise: The not-so-silent minority that swept our own Nixon into office wore it on their hats. Why it’s retained its allure, its powers of persuasion, is the more complicated question, and perhaps the more telling one: The tenacity of “decline” as one of the core concepts in American life—as a lever of change, or at least change back—is proof enough that its premise is slippery, mirage-like, always appearing as we wander the desert; the “crisis of confidence” that Jimmy Carter identified is the forebear of our own.
If Fargo betrays its preference for the shallower reading of the Seventies—it accepts the era’s “malaise” as a foundational narrative, rather than submitting it to scrutiny—and Vinyl abandons its keener insights to snort the decade’s superficial symbols right up its nose, The Deuce transforms “decline” itself into its tacit subject; it holds our understanding of the Seventies up to the light, trying to unravel its mysteries. Almost Socratic in its patience, the series begins with the familiar—an attempted mugging, kids copping speed, hookers and pimps and johns and made men—only to dismantle, by degrees, the dominant narrative: It might be described as liner notes for Curtis Mayfield’s theme, ”(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” easing into the space between the verses into an attempt to pry it apart. As with The Wire, Treme and Show Me a Hero, The Deuce marshals so much of the fabric of its place and time that there’s no ironing out the wrinkles, and the result, shadowed by Vietnam, Cesar Chavez, the women’s movement and the Stonewall riots, not to mention the Knapp Commission, Mayor Lindsay, massage parlors and obscenity laws, is a wildly ambitious reinterpretation of sex and the Seventies, always casting a skeptical eye on the allure of “decline,” on its many seductions.
As Frankie’s twin brother, Vincent (also played by Franco), opens his own bar—reluctantly accepting assistance from a local Mafioso—and Candy, asking after lighting and editing techniques, discovers a natural talent for filmmaking, The Deuce slowly but surely presses on “progress,” on what it means and for whom. Might not Paul (the winsome Chris Coy), the gay bartender at Vincent’s new spot, see the liberationist spirit of the Seventies as a moment of optimism? Might not Vincent’s new love interest, Abby (Margarita Levieva), misconstrue the usefulness of her own brand of feminism for Darlene (the extraordinary Dominique Fisback), the kindhearted black sex worker she seems determined to “save”? Might not the most common icons of the Seventies—disco, Deep Throat, bent cops, blow—conceal the decade’s halting advances by assuming it was one long retreat? Might not the belief in “decline” itself say more about the assessor than it does the assessed, about the perception and application of power, about who has it, who’s lost it, and who dreams of winning it (back)?
In our present’s fraught order, one that pitted “Make America Great Again” against “America Is Already Great” and so flouted the truth that it’s not quite so simple, it’s fitting that the last time we yielded to decline’s close embrace should appear worthy of reconsideration—and of the Seventies-set TV series that hold up history’s mirror, The Deuce is the one that acknowledges most forcefully, and indeed most tenderly, the fact that neither “progress” nor “decline” correspond to a line. Both concepts do us an injustice, erasing the hard work of change (and with it, change back) by leaning on forces beyond our command. Be it God or fate, forward march or fall from grace, such notions ignore the human hand that secures rights, or strips them away; that distributes wealth, or hordes it; that cleanses, corrupts, challenges, cries out—and so strengthen the status quo, as slow to budge now as it was in the Seventies.
The Deuce signals its dissent against this ahistorical logic from the start, as Darlene finds herself mesmerized by MGM’s 1935 adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. Down to their faint echo of Curtis Mayfield, the famous opening lines of Dickens’ own period piece, examining the French Revolution from Victorian England, might be seen as the series’ credo, always holding two ideas in its head at once:
It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
If there is a more formidable description of how we see ourselves in the Seventies, I have yet to come across it, and The Deuce so ably complicates history’s mirror that the reflection begins to singe. It pulls the rug from under those dead set on turning back the clock, and in the same moment urges us not to accept “progress” or “decline” as a fait accompli. In this rejection of the Whig version of history, there is no moral, but there may be a lesson, or perhaps a warning: As a pimp says to Candy in an upcoming episode, in the midst of the one of the most startling sequences of the year on TV, “You keep expecting better, but you keep getting worse.”
The Deuce airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.