HBO’s The Deuce presents the chaotic, violent excitement of life in 1970s New York, showing how nostalgia can also be for a time that is anything but perfect.
“Best not to mix the past with the present. The present paints the past with gold. The past paints the present with lead.” Henry Rollins.
In the current media landscape, nostalgia is in: from new TV series to sequels of classic films, and even the discussion of nostalgia amongst critics, much visual media is focused on the recent past. But what about when something is nostalgic, but then, sort of isn’t?
The Deuce, HBO’s new drama from the writers of The Wire, recreates a New York that is horrifying in its violence, particularly for women. This world of pimps, drug dealers, corrupt police and made men, is also a world of diners, dive bars and communes. Times Square, largely recreated through CGI, is both sleazy and run down, but also pregnant with opportunity. It’s a brutal world, but a world where outsiders – drag queens, strung-out Vietnam vets and prostitutes – have somewhere to coalesce in Manhattan. The nostalgia evoked differs to that of Downtown Abbey or Victoria, which is for those whose hearts pang for a time when everything was clean and ordered; The Deuce, on the other hand, is a nostalgia for those who miss a dirty, chaotic world. And it is often within this chaos that great cultural movements can happen.
It is not necessary to repeat why visual media forms position their audiences to yearn for the past (however, in case you missed it, everything is awful and we are all miserable), but how it is done is worth lingering upon. Consider the location: poor old New York, gentrified to within an inch of its life, and probably not nearly as much fun as it once was. Many have attempted to evoke historic New York on the small screen – which is the best place to tell stories these days – to largely disastrous effect. Baz Lurham’s The Get Down, which charts the rise of hip hop, was awful. And HBO’s Vinyl, brought to us by Martin Scorsese, was a failure for the network. The stories these filmmakers wanted to tell are wonderful. They are musical movements born in a particular place and time – New York in the 1970s. Yet each somehow fail to communicate the contradictory nature of this city.
The places which are created in The Deuce partly explain its nostalgic appeal to the rogues and outsiders amongst us, even those of us born long after the time in which it is set. Two places are significant in the storytelling, one being the Hi-Hat, the bar backed by the mob, but run by James Franco’s Vinnie (and propped up by James Franco again, as Vinnie’s twin Frankie).
From episode three onwards, the Hi-Hat is a centrepiece for what we may think New York in the 1970s must have been like; full of interesting people, but probably mafia-owned. The Hi-Hat is gently bumping, a place that tolerates pimps, the prostitutes they work, drag queens, gay men and an assortment of other people. Vinnie wouldn’t want it any other way because frankly “people come to New York to be surprised”. Is this something which could be said about New York now? Today’s New York is mainstream, while the New York re-created in The Deuce is anything but.
Leon’s Diner is the second significant location, housing everyone from gambling addicts to wannabe journalists. It’s an old-school breakfast joint, run by a man called Leon, who accepts that his is the chosen eatery of pimps and prostitutes, but isn’t afraid to challenge a pimp who speaks without respect to the ladies. It’s a great moment, to see a pimp who rules with fear and cruelty firmly put in his place by a diner owner.
It’s too easy to look back at this period of New York’s history and see gold in what was, of course, a terrible time. The corruption and violence was a manifestation, at street level, of a broken municipality. But in bringing this period to life, the creators have offered some balance; each scene highlights the chaos and disorder that was New York in the 1970s, but also the opportunities to make a bit of money and have a lot of fun. A porn producer muses over a loophole in the law that he’s found which will allow him to record pornography. The show revolves around the tantalising concept of ‘community standards’ which New York doesn’t appear to have.
Perhaps we all yearn for something in the past that we think represents who we are and how we’d like the world to be. For those whose nostalgia comes tied up in an ITV Sunday night period piece, it’s because we view particular periods in history as better organised, a time when people knew their place. For those of us a little left-field, who like our stories to be told with a bit more sex and drugs, then 1970s New York (which bore us disco, hip hop and punk) is a perfect slice of nostalgia. This period was flawed and dangerous, and the people having a good time were also suffering. The Deuce presents this as one of the incongruities that engulf a life lived interestingly. And it’s right good telly.
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