Friday, March 27, 2020
March 27, 2020: AmericanStudying The Deuce: Alston, Goldman, and NYC's Changes
[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 somewhat underutilized characters who nonetheless reflect some of the show’s key themes and debates.
David Simon’s TV shows have been pretty wide-ranging in setting and content, but all of them (with the likely exception of 2008’s Generation Kill, the seven-episode Iraq War miniseries that I haven’t yet had a chance to watch) have included one iteration or another of threads focused on the police and politicians. The Deuce is no different: one of the characters present from the first episode to the last is Chris Alston, a police officer played by another of those David Simon Extended Universe actors I was very happy to see back (Lawrence Gilliard Jr., likely still best known as D’Angelo Barksdale from The Wire); and beginning in season two Alston is more or less consistently partnered with Luke Kirby’s Gene Goldman, a political figure loosely affiliated with the police who is working to clean up Times Square/midtown Manhattan ahead of investment and gentrification in the area. A show with as many characters and threads as The Deuce is never going to be able to spend as much time with every one of them as would be ideal, and while for both of these characters we do glimpse interesting additional layers through their personal lives (for Alston in his romantic relationships with women who have very different takes on the city than he does as a cop, and for Goldman because he is a closeted gay man pursuing risky sexual liaisons while married with children), we don’t quite see enough of those elements for them to be developed successfully.
What that does mean, however, is that the characters of Alston and Goldman can remain more clearly and centrally focused throughout seasons two and three on the questions of whether and how to “clean up” midtown, and the related questions of the costs and benefits of such changes. The dynamic between the two men is somewhat similar to the contrasting one between Ashley and Abby that I highlighted in Wednesday’s post: Alston is an insider, having spent years in the Deuce and become friendly with many of its denizens (his first scene in episode one is an extended, light-hearted conversation with a group of pimps at a shoeshine booth); while Goldman is an outsider, bringing those outside forces of politics and money to bear on the neighborhood (while, again, he is also, hypocritically partaking in its hidden pleasures through his private life). Yet for most of their time working together, the two have pretty similar agendas, and indeed Alston’s primary role for much of seasons two and three is to utilize his more personal connection to the Deuce to find ways to further Goldman’s goals and help push the neighborhood toward change and gentrification. Of course midtown and the city did significantly change in the years immediately following the show’s 1985 conclusion, and so these two characters perhaps reflect Simon’s sense that those changes were, if not inevitable, at least unchallenged (if not entirely supported) by the various levels of authority and power that these two figures represent.
Yet it’s not quite accurate to say that gentrification goes unchallenged within the political world of The Deuce. Of course some of the other characters I’ve highlighted this week vocally oppose those changes, with both Abby and Paul in particular articulating strong arguments against gentrification in the show’s final season. But by the closing episodes Alston has come to share more of their perspective than he (or we) might have expected, and he attempts to share that vision with Goldman in their final scene together: Alston drives Goldman to the Bronx to show him one of the new neighborhoods where prostitution, drugs, and other elements of the Deuce’s seedier side have relocated; when Goldman asks him whether Manhattan is nonetheless better off than it was before their efforts, Alston’s response is simply a final, “I don’t know.” I think it’s fair to say that The Deuce as a whole has a similarly conflicted perspective on these central themes and questions: as I argued Monday, through characters like Lori the show has depicted the hugely destructive effects of the worlds of prostitution and porn that were at the heart of the Deuce in the 70s and 80s; but the final 2019-set coda depicts Times Square as it exists in our current moment, a mecca of capitalist excess and superficiality, and it’s hard not to think about what has been lost and forgotten through that evolution. A multi-layered, contradictory, very American lens on those issues, as this wonderful show was on so many themes.
March Recap tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other recent TV you’d recommend?