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Monday, March 23, 2020

March 23, 2020: AmericanStudying The Deuce: Lori, Emily Meade, and Exploitation

[Last fall I had the chance to watch the third and final season of The Deuce, George Pelecanos and David Simon’s phenomenal HBO series about, well, all the things I’ll AmericanStudy in this series and more! I’d love to hear your thoughts on The Deuce, or other TV you’d recommend, in comments!]
[FYI: SPOILERS for The Deuce in most of this week’s posts, so if you haven’t seen it yet, get thee hence and then come on back!]
On the character and actor who together helped the show grapple with its most fraught issues.
In an August 2015 interview with Seth Meyers conducted not long before he started shooting The Deuce, David Simon acknowledged the high-wire act required to make a show about pornography without making pornography, to portray a fraught social and cultural topic like that (and related ones like prostitution) without exploiting either it or his performers. With the rise of the #MeToo movement over the next couple years, all those issues and potential landmines for the show became that much more salient still. And then one of the show’s biggest-name stars, James Franco (who played dual roles as the brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino), became embroiled in a #MeToo controversy of his own when a number of female performers came forward with accusations of inappropriate behavior on the actor’s part. In a wide-ranging 2019 interview with Rolling Stone TV critic Alan Sepinwall conducted just after the show concluded, Simon sought to downplay those particular accusations against Franco, while making clear that he and the show had themselves struggled, particularly during the making of the first season, with questions of performer consent and comfort.
Franco’s situation remains ongoing, and while I understand Simon’s arguments in that latter interview, I don’t think we yet know how it will play out. But when it comes to The Deuce, I believe the show did succeed at navigating these fraught and important issues and questions, both on and behind the camera, and it did so in large part through one actor and character: Emily Meade’s Lori Madison. Lori, who began the show as a fresh-faced young girl newly arrived in early 1970s New York and pulled into the world of prostitution, gradually became one of the megastars of the booming porn world of that decade, and ended her arc having to face fundamental and heart-breaking questions of whether she had any identity outside of those worlds and roles, represented quite clearly and potently the most exploitative and destructive effects of prostitution and pornography in America. Meade’s multi-layered performance, one of the finest I’ve ever seen in a TV show, made this character far from simply a victim; yet at the end of the day she was indeed victimized and destroyed in ways that forced the audience to examine the costs of everything they’d seen (and perhaps at times cheered for) in the course of the show’s three seasons.
As impressive and important as her performance was, however, it was through a contribution to the show behind the scenes that Meade made the biggest difference, not only for this particular show but for Hollywood productions and culture more broadly. Recognizing many of the first-season issues that I referenced above, and feeling in particular the challenge (for herself and for many other performers, especially female ones) of filming so many nude and/or sex scenes, of performing a role that could itself be exploitative or even destructive if not handled sensitively, Meade advocated for the show to hire an intimacy coordinator, someone who could help the performers and the production better navigate such scenes and issues. As Meade acknowledges in both those hyperlinked interviews, intimacy coordinators have been around for a while, but I have to imagine that I’m far from the only pop culture fan who first learned about them (as, it seems, Meade did as well, before she helped bring them to broader attention and indeed to every other HBO show in production) in relationship to their role on The Deuce. I’ll touch throughout the week’s series on a number of aspects that made The Deuce such a successful and significant show, but in truth Meade and her contributions both on and behind the camera are without question at the top of that list.
Next DeuceStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other recent TV you’d recommend?

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