For the last three years on HBO, The Deuce has explored how the intersection of the burgeoning pornography industry and the forces of capitalism combined to radically change the identity of Times Square from the inside out. Like other remarkable shows by David Simon and George Pelecanos, including The Wire and Treme, The Deuce was more interested in disassembling the mechanics of urban living, and exploring the rich inner lives of the people trying to survive under capitalism, than it was in accumulating awards or kowtowing to more straightforward storytelling techniques. Also like those other shows, The Deuce never quite broke through to a massive audience while remaining a critical and cult favorite.
The third and final season of the show mostly takes place over the course of 1985, a transformational year for the sex industry as well as for the future of Times Square—as Vulture wrote, "The newly finished Marriott Marquis, topped by a tourist-friendly revolving restaurant, is treated as if it were the tower bearing the Eye of Sauron." The advent of VHS technology, the redevelopment of Midtown, the spread of AIDS, and the anti-pornographic movement all collide in the new season, with major characters falling by the wayside.
"It's like all that hard work doesn't matter because I made mistakes when I was a kid," Darlene (Dominique Fishback) says to Abby (Margarita Levieva), summing up the issues faced by former sex workers as they tried to move forward with their lives, in a scene from last night's episode which freepicker got to watch being filmed. "But you're fighting it, right?" Abby asks. Darlene, who hasn't appeared in this season before now, responds: "Damn right, I'm fighting it."
Above, you can check out photos from around the set, including Leon's Diner (which was originally based on Tina's Place in Bushwick), Vince & Abby's apartment (which features the artwork of Jane Dickson on the walls) and the building's corridors, The Hi-Hat bar which Abby runs (and which was reportedly based on the long-gone Tin Pan Alley bar on W 49th Street), and The French Parlor, the brothel run by Vince's brother-in-law Bobby.
We also got to speak to co-creator Pelecanos all about the new season, bringing the show to a satisfying close, and what he's learned about gender bias and discrimination while making the show. "I hope people enjoy what we did," he said at one point. "We feel like we're really going to finish strong."
So why does season three (mostly) take place in 1985? With every season, there's always something, either an event or an atmosphere, that was the decisive factor for us putting it in that particular year. With '85, it's when AIDS really hit New York with a force. And it's also the year that [Mayor Ed] Koch closed all the bathhouses and massage parlors. Just shut them down. And the reason he shut them all, whether they were gay or straight, was because politically he couldn't just close the gay bathhouses and say it was AIDS-related. He had to do it across the spectrum. And then along with that, it also happened to be the time that the real estate people were swooping in buying up all these SROs and these old buildings in Times Square. It hit bottom. When it hits bottom, that's when the money comes in and transforms. And then as far as our world goes, pornography went from film to video, and then it moved out west.
It all started to convert to VHS, and it changed from going out to the theater to having home movies. Exactly. Unless you were just a guy who liked to go to the theater and jack off around other guys. But it went into the house. The first season ends with the premiere of Deep Throat, which legitimized porn and everything porn chic, and a lot of people thought, well, now there's going to be a revolution of porn. There's going to be great porn movies coming in.
Like art movies. And this is the end of that because once you go into the homes, people don't want any of that. Actually, there was a de-evolution of pornography at this point and it was just about fuck scenes. No more stories, no more production values. And you see where it's going. It's gone to what porno is now, which is just vignettes. Two or three minutes, and the money shot. So all these sort of artistic dreams that people had fell by the wayside.
When you and David initially pitched the show to HBO, from what I understand, you had a pretty clear three season outline arc. We did.
The first season was about porn entering the mainstream, or having a moment where it was legitimized in a certain way. The second season was the peak of that, the height of decadence. Right. It was the top of the mountain.
What would you say the third season is about? It's the end of all that. It's the end of Times Square as it was. It's the end of the promise of pornography as possible art. And it's all of our characters meeting their fates. It's the fate of being involved in this world, whether it's prostitution or pornography. There's a reckoning for all of them. And there's a lot of attrition in that world. So not all of our characters are going to make it. A good deal of them aren't going to make it. There'll be some exceptions, but we knew from the beginning what was going to happen to all of them. And it's great to be able to write the whole book, you know what I mean? If they hadn't given us the full three years, it wouldn't have worked.
Were there any things that you either had to or just decided to adjust differently from what that initial outline or those initial ideas were? Just the character stuff. When you do a series for a few seasons, the actors begin to inhabit the roles and they sort of takeover. And you start writing for the actors, what they've done with the character. It actually gets a lot easier.
You can hear them in your head more easily. Oh yeah. And in turn the characters become more real to you as a writer. You can adjust. Most of these characters are based on real people, even if it was just a template. Candy, Maggie Gyllenhaal's character, was really a street prostitute, and then a barmaid. And then we started working with [Gyllenhaal]. We knew that she was going to be going into porn as an actress and eventually make films. But I think through working with Maggie, we saw the character someone who discovered herself as an artist. A real artist. And that's 100% of a direction away from what we had conceived her to be in the beginning. But the way she is going to end up is going to be really satisfying.
I spoke to Jane Dickson last year, I know she was a consultant on the show, and she lent some of her paintings to it this season. She was around at that time in Times Square [and knew some of the people the characters are based on], and the way she put it was, "Well, the real people either moved to Westchester or they didn't survive." And the ones who did survive tend to defend what they did and their lifestyle. Rationalize it.
To own it, perhaps. Yeah, to own it. And who am I to say whether they're right or wrong, you know what I mean? I have my own ideas about pornography. On one hand, I'm all for freedom of speech, but there's no question in my mind that the way we see women treated today in terms of the images of women and the way pornography went which is much more… You wouldn't think it would go this way, but in the beginning the women were treated more humanely and more as partners in the relationship. If you watch porn now, it's like, yeah, now, it's going to be a facial. It's much more degrading. There's much more violent imagery. And I think that carries into the way I hear young guys talk about women. Calling them bitches and—
The "locker room talk." The so-called "locker room talk." I think it's a direct result of the generation of boys growing up with porn and becoming men.
It was a rite of passage as a young man to go get your first porn magazine or video or whatever it is. Yeah. And we've learned some shit, too. Like, when we were shooting the first season, when Trump was caught on tape, basically admitting to assaulting a woman. At first we were all pretty happy, in the sense that that's got to be it for him, right? And then we saw that it wasn't, and that he was still in the race. Of course, he eventually became president, but the fact that he was still in the race and gaining steam after that kind of put a chip on our shoulder. And when I say our shoulder, I mean, it was not just David and I, but the actresses, the crew. We all had a sense of purpose in telling this story. And it was incredible to us that…Jimmy Carter was dragged through the mud when he admitted to having lust in his heart for a woman, and that got more attention and negative attention than Trump did when he talked about grabbing a woman's pussy. So that shows you how much things have changed and gone backwards in terms of male-female relations.
The show also premiered around the period when MeToo first exploded and became a national conversation. And it's interesting to see how far we've come, or haven't come, in the years since. For example, did you follow all the stuff last winter about that CBS show Bull? [CBS paid actress Eliza Dushku $9.5 million to settle harassment claims against the show's star Michael Weatherly] Yeah, I read all that stuff.
And they got picked up again, with the same star, despite everything. I wondered, why would any company in 2019 want to still be in business with something like that? Well, I'll tel you why. Money. They don't care. America doesn't care. It's like, "I want to see Bull at 10 o'clock on Friday nights" or whatever it is. You know what I mean? They don't care, when you get down to with it.
It's just a financial decision. So all of the big talk from companies that "we are changing our ways" and "Les Moonves is gone," and "we're going to—" Don't believe anybody, man. First of all, I've been on panels since then with all these other showrunners, and these guys are all bragging about, "we're going to hire a lot of women to come work" and all this stuff. One of the guys I was on a panel with, a couple months later, it came out that he was sexually abusing women. Just don't believe us when we say this stuff. I also think that's sort of an insult to women. We have used a lot of women on this show, especially as directors—like the majority of the directors on the show are women. But it's an insult to say I hired a bunch of women because I thought it was time, to take credit for something that people should have been doing 20 years ago, you know what I mean?
A fascinating aspect of the show is the fact that you are two men writing a lot about and from the female gaze. We knew we needed help. That's why there's a lot of women in our writers' room, and a lot of directors. We know that. We're just two middle-aged guys who don't know shit about women, still.
You've walked a tightrope in trying to discuss incredibly complex issues about sexuality, pornography, and the treatment of women in general. What have you learned making this show? It was really challenging. First of all, to do all the sex scenes. It's not enjoyable to shoot that stuff. It's not titillating in any way.
I get the impression it's not supposed to be. Yeah, we figured out a way to shoot it where it also wasn't titillating for the viewer. And you do that by the styles of the shots, the lighting, and everything. It's totally un-romanticize. But in the first season, Emily Meade, who plays Lori Madison, she spoke up and said, "It's not good enough. I don't care if it's acting on a show." And we were doing the best we could. We always had closed sets. There was nobody except the most essential people, which was just a few people watching the monitors. But we hired a woman to come in, Alicia Rodis, who was a former stunt woman and choreographer. [She works as an "intimacy coordinator" on several HBO shows now.]
We interviewed a few people and we hired her. And she now is on set at any time, not just when we're shooting porn, but any time there's any nudity, any touching whatsoever. Even just two people making out. She's on the set all the time and the actresses and the actors can talk to her instead of coming to me or David. And then she's involved in the costume meetings beforehand too. So when everybody comes to set, everything's fully prepared, down to like what their undergarments [will be]. They know what's going to happen. There's no surprises. But we needed to have that help. David and I were not equipped to figure it out. And in the writers' room, women will…[Pelecanos points out a woman walking by us] There's one of our writers right there, Stephani DeLuca. She'll call us out on stuff. That's cool. She's a good writer, and that's also what we want from them.
You want to have a healthy discussion. By the time you're filming it, you should all be on the same page. Right. All of the arguments should be in the room.
It was a lot more time consuming in season one, because there were a lot of questions on the set and us trying to figure it out. Like, who is this character? And [the actors] didn't know us, really, that well. Most of these people haven't worked with us before. We met with everybody before we shot season one and we said, "Look, this is what you're going to be asked to do. You sort of have to trust us." But it still wasn't enough. It had to be worked out. Season three was absolutely the easiest season to shoot. [Actors] barely have questions anymore because they'll read the script and they were like, oh, yeah, I know how to play this.
It's so corny to say it, but I think I'm a better person after doing this show. Just being around all these women and listening to them. I never deliberately did anything that I thought was bad, but I wasn't as enlightened as I thought I was.
You weren't, say, conscious of your own male biases, and things like that? Yeah, absolutely. So it's been good for me at this late stage in my life.
Besides obviously hiring more women, how do you think Hollywood productions can do a better job in the future of not marginalizing women? On this show, when we do casting, not just our leads and our regulars but even the day players and everything, we insist on women looking like real women. So they can be a little heavy or they can be too skinny or whatever. We're not looking for the hottest women in every scene. And you do some of these network shows, nobody really notices, they recast all the time because they do testing. "So-and-so wasn't hot enough" or "the men didn't respond." You've got to stop doing that. Stop objectifying women for your product. That's the main thing right there. And then having more women directors, have more women department heads. That should become the norm. Once people get used to that, you don't go backwards. It just feels like it's normal to do that, to have that many female voices on set. I know this show wouldn't be as good if we had the same crew that… That Wire was pretty much a male production.
A dude production. It was all guys in the writers' room. A lot of guys on set, a lot of male department heads, and very few women directors. It suited that show. And I'm not saying that The Wire would have been better, but this show wouldn't have been what it is, or have become what it is, without us being more inclusive.
I would imagine, and hope, that after this experience, you would not be able to go back to something like that. No. In fact, David and I are talking about our next show, and even though it's going to be…I can't tell you much about it, but it's going back to that world of The Wire a little bit, at least stuff like that. We think it's traditionally another male show, but we're going to populate it with the same kinds of people behind the cameras as The Deuce, and I think it's going to be great.