copyright 2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018

“What kind of bad?” Curtis Mayfield and The Deuce

by Matthew Tchepikova-Treon

Late in episode five of The Deuce: A prostitute named Ruby offers an underage girl new to the city advice on how to handle her johns and survive her pimp. “Make sure you get the money up front,” Ruby says. “Rodney ain’t as bad as the others, but you gotta bring your piece. You keep getting took, shit gets bad.” Sixteen-year-old Bernice asks, “What kind of bad?” Apart from Bernice’s most direct meaning—What will Rodney do to me?—her question could stand as the tagline for the entire show.

Every character navigating The Deuce’s hardscrabble world of a rapidly changing sex industry in 1970s New York City must constantly ask: What kind of bad will happen to me? What kind of bad am I willing to do? And what kind of bad is necessary? Beyond pure self-preservation, they ask: What kind of bad will I tolerate? Some also want to know: What kind of bad do I desire? And what kind of bad benefits me? The question itself calls forth a world predicated on ruthless competition and hierarchical oppression devoid of refuge, where, despite best intentions, everyone plays a role and someone always gets paid. Some characters remain oblivious to these truths, yet others embrace or only half-deny them, while still more rationalize their overall inconvenience. Or, as Vincent Martino—the show’s mustachioed linchpin—puts it after his girlfriend, Abby, silently rebukes him for his matter-of-fact response to Ruby’s eventual murder just outside his bar: “You got me wrong. I love women. But it’s the Deuce.”

Throughout the first season of The Deuce, co-created by David Simon and George Pelecanos, we find a broadreaching story of New York City in the early 1970s that deals as much with city hall corruption as it does with pimps and prostitutes. It is as much about harbingers of gentrification as about the golden age of pornography’s materialization in Times Square. Consequently, we find Simon continuing his “methodical deglamorization of American cities and institutions,” as Alison Herman describes the series.[1][open endnotes in new window] Yet, we also find a well-crafted period piece that deftly blends its grimy realist aesthetic with a sense of electric glamour that are part and parcel of the space and historical moment the show critically represents. Further still, as is common to the work of both Simon and Pelecanos, we also find empathetically drawn characters viewed in light of the painstakingly detailed capitalist systems that keep them all on the grind. But, in an audiovisual world populated by wolfish politicians, mob-financed massage parlors, insatiable police corruption, progenitors of mainstream porn production, and the capitalist rezoning of New York City’s red-light district, what we do not find is an easy answer to Bernice’s question, no matter who asks it.

From the beginning, however, The Deuce does let us know one thing: whether one regards it with puritanism or prurience, no one escapes the most damning impulses and incentives available in modern U.S. cities. Like Curtis Mayfield attests to in the show’s opening credits, “If there’s a hell below, we’re all gonna go.” We hear Mayfield sing this titular line near the start of every episode of The Deuce, and always as a prescient statement on things to come. What kind of bad? The question resonates at the heart of Mayfield’s song, which itself is heard throughout the show’s first season. What follows here is a close analysis of the song’s sociological critique of inner-city life in 1970s United States as it pertains directly to The Deuce, highlighting the many ways it lends itself to the show—aesthetically and narratively—while also bringing the song’s sound and ideas to bear on the show’s central themes, utilizing Bernice’s question as a recurring motif. Further still, by considering how The Deuce critically addresses the very culture industry it represents, I also historically outline Mayfield’s own musical relation to the production of exploitation films popular in Times Square theaters during the 1970s in order to demonstrate the ways popular music participated in shaping the social space and cultural imaginary from which The Deuce takes its name.

Opening credits

Released in 1970, just months after his departure from the Chicago pop-soul band The Impressions, Mayfield’s debut solo album, Curtis, marked a seismic shift in his music, career, and social influence. With the album’s opening track and lead single, “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” Mayfield stormed the gates of the Seventies with his own new funk-infused, politically-minded, psychedelic-soul sound. Held down by a thick fuzz-bass line, Mayfield and his band play a constant blitz of low brass swells, high horn hits, and burning string arrangements over a drumbeat punctuated by congas and a scratchy wah-wah guitar. Rhythmic rather than chordal movement drives the song from start to finish, and Mayfield’s urgent voice tears through the mix. Lyrically and sonically, the song is an eight-minute tour of Cold War United Sates’ most damaging contradictions sustained by the country’s most precarious self-deceptions. As a result, the song is not your usual melancholic lament. Instead, Mayfield’s upbeat jeremiad performs a direct social critique that is equal parts comedy, tragedy, and funk-soul tirade.

In its full-length version,[2] the song opens with the sound of a young woman professing salvation for all if people would just “read the book of Revelation.” Mayfield is unconvinced. His  “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”—eschatological in tone, yet meaningfully devoid of faith—proceeds to radically invert the musical tradition of black spirituals invoked by the woman’s proclamation. If anything, Mayfield’s Testamental tone performs a kind of secular deliverance. The year prior to the song’s recording, during his first inaugural address, Richard Nixon had stood framed by a world on fire, calling for calm and restrained discourse. He said then,

“When we listen to the better angels of our nature we find that they celebrate the simple things, the basic things—such as goodness, decency, love, kindness. Greatness comes in simple trappings… To lower our voices would be a simple thing.”

But Curtis Mayfield heard no angels in Nixon’s United States. He saw only an illusive spectacle of violence and greed. So when we hear him sing, “There can be no show / And if there’s hell below / We’re all gonna go,” during the opening credits of The Deuce, the song sounds made for this televised world.

The title sequence for The Deuce stands as an artistic microcosm in its own right.[3] It is a carnival ride through Times Square that highlights the materiality of 70s-era film technologies, the maelstrom of people moving through the city, and the Deuce’s luminescent sea of nighttime theater marquees. All the while, the show’s theme song lays out its initial claim: “Everyone here is on the hook for something.” Mayfield’s roll call includes “sisters / brothers and the whiteys / blacks and the crackers / police and their backers,” “…all political actors,” “people running from their worries / …the judge and his juries,” students, pimps, dealers, educators, lawmakers, cat callers, war mongers and free lovers. Amidst the chaos, Mayfield’s most direct and damning invocation comes when he repeatedly sings, “And Nixon talking ‘bout, ‘Don’t worry.’”

Underscoring the sardonic tone of this line, Nixon’s words echo via an analog delay effect applied to Mayfield’s voice. Evidence of an avant-garde impulse often relegated to the periphery of his music, here the foregrounded tape manipulation technique creates a peculiar haunting effect. Repetition contributes to the overall feeling of paranoia that rings throughout the song, with Nixon’s doublespeak rippling out mantra-like, lingering in the mouths of others, producing an aural sensation of techno-indoctrination. Moreover, the timing of each echo, set roughly a quarter note apart, is slightly off so that after about two measures, each fading word begins to slip off the beat just enough to sound a touch more menacing, adding to the song’s paranoiac uncanniness. Further still, in most instances the echo effect cuts off the initial attack of “don’t,” such that, after its first full utterance, the word “worry” alone distortedly loops like a siren. In this moment we hear Mayfield’s foreboding alarm cut through the song’s apocalyptic reproach. It is perhaps a sound of warning to resist the nihilistic tendencies that nonetheless inform the song elsewhere.

This moment of alarm envelops The Deuce’s opening credits as the show’s title/logo first appears, followed by eight key visual moments in quick succession, all slightly obfuscated by the superimposition of flashing lights and degraded film stock running in multiple directions:

  1. A window-framed hallway inside the hotel where the prostitutes working the Deuce take their johns (foreshadowing both the sex parlors and the season’s final shot).
  2. A pair of male hands counting cash. The physical exchange of cash is constantly seen throughout the show.
  3. A stilettoed pair of legs running through the rain at night, which cuts to…
  4. A quick shot of a woman’s hand holding her high heels by morning.
  5. The logo made to simulate film being pulled through a projector.
  6. Then we see a bare foot step into a puddle in the street.
  7. The water now reflects a distorted blue sky above.
  8. And the presence of film stock again draws our attention to the significance of pornographic cinema’s material form and aesthetic.

With the opening sequence’s final shot, the diegetic world of The Deuce opens up sonically and we hear the woman’s foot stepping in water, accompanied by the final sounds of Mayfield’s song, just when the music, as if crossing some lethal sound barrier, suddenly gives way to a rumbling explosive sound of electric feedback. In the show’s pilot episode, this sonic shockwave lingers, then fades out as the screen goes black and we hear: “Nah, man, that’s some bullshit.”

In the scene that follows, we watch two pimps—Reggie Love and C.C.—in New York Port Authority, prey on young women while carrying on a conversation in which they analogize Richard Nixon’s threat to drop a nuclear bomb on Vietnam with their own coercive tactics for controlling prostitutes, or what we can imagine them boastfully referring to as the Sun Tzu-styled “art of pimping.” Not so much a cipher for the show as a deep dive into the question of incentive, this conversation comparing the psyche of Richard Nixon to that of the street hustler poses the classic two-part question: What motivates the prostitute? What motivates the pimp? If Mayfield’s theme song in part functions like a casting call for a show ready to interrogate methodically every name on the list, which I argue it does, then The Deuce responds by transforming these social types into human beings on screen,[4[] beginning with this scene in Port Authority. So, before returning to Curtis Mayfield’s music, it is worth momentarily exploring this particular dialectic for the ways it helps demonstrate how the “What kind of bad?” motif, encapsulated in The Deuce’s theme song, permeates the show as an organizing principle for the characters who populate its world.

President Nixon pimping

After the explosive sound that ends Mayfield’s opening song fades into general crowd noise inside New York Port Authority, we hear a veteran pimp named Reggie Love, speaking in a manner of pomp and pontification, size up President Nixon:

“Man, every move that man make, he already got it mapped out. No, he ain’t being crazy at all. He’s acting like a motherfucking fox… You can see right where the man coming from. Shit makes perfect sense to me.”

Reggie then tells C.C. that, when dealing with the Vietnam War, Nixon’s “carrot” comes in the form of peace talks, while his “stick” is him acting “crazy enough to do all kind of shit—bomb the shit out of Vietnam, take over Cambodia, whatever the fuck.” Slightly empathizing with Nixon’s diplomatic quandary, Reggie adds,

“If I was him I’d be flashing nuclear weapons and shit… I’m not saying I would use that shit. I’m saying I’d be like, ‘Do not fuck with President Reggie Love.”

Then he draws his comparison, telling C.C. that, even though a pimp “don’t want to have to cut a bitch,” it is in his best interest if she thinks you might. To this point C.C. says,

“So, Nixon pimping? Well, shit yeah. That makes good sense to me.”

We soon meet Lori, in from Minnesota,[5] whom C.C. sweet talks into his Cadillac Eldorado and escorts into the city where she immediately begins working for him. The previously cited “What kind of bad?” scene between Ruby and Bernice represents the flip side of Reggie Love and C.C.’s conversation, but from the prostitutes’ perspective, in notably more practical (i.e., survivalist) and less philosophical terms. Unlike Lori, who finds a sense of glamor and perhaps even agency in streetwalking, Bernice only finds herself on the other end of Rodney’s proverbial stick.

Contrary to several reviews of the show, The Deuce is no simple allegory for capitalism,[6] and the complex dynamic I am gesturing at by comparing Reggie Love and C.C.’s conversation with that of Ruby and Bernice demonstrates precisely why. In these moments, especially when juxtaposed, we see the show’s dialectical approach to understanding relations between personal experience and society, or what C. Wright Mills named the sociological imagination. Through its characters, The Deuce explicitly strives to perform that particular “quality of mind” that Mills argues “enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and external career of a variety of individuals” that emerges from shifting perspectives.[7] In the world of the show, the prostitutes who work the Deuce, the parlors, and the porn sets are both object lessons for an oppressive system and human actors within that system—even if, for these women, demanding to be seen as human might prove fatal, as the tragic irony of Ruby’s advice to Bernice ultimately confirms. Likewise, in depicting the pimps, The Deuce methodically explores—through the lens of self as much as system—the particular complex of corrupt social, political, and economic incentives that inform their exploitative drive to accumulate both profit and power from these women.

For another pointed example concerning this question of incentive, consider Gentle Richie, The Deuce’s white hustler with a heart of gold who represents 1970’s-era hipsterism à la Norman Mailer (and Mayfield’s “whitey”). Everyone working the Deuce knows Richie as a one-woman pimp whose minimal amount of peacocking comes in the form of style and cool manner more than violence. In other words, to utilize Reggie Love’s opening analogy, Gentle Richie is more carrot than stick. In the third episode, this demeanor leads Larry, a far more provocative pimp, to interrogate Richie while drinking at the Hi-Hat: “So, you a communist or some shit, right?” Then, in one of the show’s most deeply humorous moments, Richie, speaking in his smooth, full-bodied falsetto, replies, “I don’t know nothing about that, but I don’t dig hierarchical oppression, man. I just don’t.” He then speaks in genuinely loving terms about Rochelle, his one and only prostitute whom he refers to as his “everything, man.” Larry tries to remind him that “she your ho, Richie.” To which Gentle Richie comes back in half-baked Marxist terms with, “Yeah, but she controls the means of production, dig?” And even though the camera moves down the bar so that Richie delivers this line off-screen, his homespun rebuttal is no throwaway joke.

Sure, Larry admonishing Richie for being a bad capitalist could occasion a worthwhile Marxist critique of political economy and the sex industry in The Deuce well beyond the scope of my writing here. After all, Marx did in fact see prostitution as exemplary of alienated social relations in capitalism, analogously identifying the pimp as capitalist, the prostitute as worker-commodity, and the client as consumer in a holy trinity that reveals the forces of production charged by the sexual fantasies of the bourgeoisie.[8] But, again, though centrally concerned with the relations of production in a modern capitalist society vis-à-vis the double commodification of women’s bodies as both worker and ware in the sex industry—be it prostitution or pornography[9]—as well as control over the spaces in which they labor, generating profits for almost everyone but themselves (and especially white men), The Deuce is no simple allegory for capitalism. Richie’s almost endearing egalitarian belief that Rochelle somehow operates outside of this economic structure, and thus counter to the oppressive relations manifest therein—which we know from Candy’s story is a fiction—slyly satirizes the misapprehension of leftist idealism that undoubtedly generates a trite sense of subcultural capital for guys like Richie (i.e., countercultural types for whom the status quo is not all that bad). In contrast, for Larry, Richie’s feminized “communist” tendencies insult Larry’s own hardened belief that, for the pimp, power is everything.[10]

The racial dynamics in this joke are equally telling, and even more central to my study here. By the end of its first season, The Deuce shows us a transformed world of sex work where white men, whether running parlors, taking payments for protection, or producing pornographic material, take over the prostitution business, so to speak, and begin systematically pushing black pimps out of the so-called game. Though still getting paid, the pimps’ profits now seem somehow abstracted from any sense of purpose. Attributing to pimps such a sense of purpose is a perverse interpretation, to say the least, but one that gets at how seriously The Deuce considers the subjective and the systematic as dialectically integrated and mutually constitutive.

During another of the show’s moments of unexpected humor, three pimps—Larry, Rodney, and C.C., their women now working in the parlors instead of out on the streets—sit in a cafe and commiserate about their new found surplus of leisure time. C.C., speaking in existential tones, complains how “the other night, I didn’t know what to do with my damn self. I went to a movie,” and tells them he saw Fantasia. Rodney laughs before avowing that he really likes the film’s dancing hippos. The irony in this joke runs deep—not least of which because it makes a clever nod to the future Disneyfication of Times Square in cinematic terms—by gesturing toward two things: (1) the inevitable gentrification of 42nd Street, of which this story plays a major role, and (2) a future where this classic pimp figure—who was represented in so many 1970s films that ran in Times Square theaters, and thus became so influentially bound up in that historical space’s cultural imaginary—will have no place in the Deuce. As C.C. puts it, they “have become extraneous in this whole situation.”

Mayfield’s ghetto imaginary and Sandra’s “tricks of the trade”

Throughout season one of The Deuce, the character Sandra Washington, a journalist for New York Amsterdam News who brings a particular sociological credence to the show’s investigative impulse within its own world, works to understand the “whole situation,” as C.C. refers to it. The Deuce manifests and performs C. Wright Mills’ notion of the sociological imagination most directly through Sandra. She circulates among the denizens of the Deuce, especially on the street and in the Hi-Hat, interviewing prostitutes and pimps, as well as briefly dating Officer Alston, who works the Deuce beat for NYPD. While exploring the question of motivation and incentive between the pimps and prostitutes, she also works methodically to uncover and report on the larger pay-for-protection racket instituted by police at varying levels of corruption. However, offered no refuge from systemic pressures, no Archimedean point outside the world on which she reports, in the end, the political exposé she spends the entire season building towards is eventually gutted of its broader economic and social context by her editor for fear of political backlash. Her writing becomes little more than a “human interest story” about violent pimps and exploited prostitutes, one she had all along worked to resist.

A short exchange between Sandra and her editor at the Amsterdam News reveals a wealth of context about Sandra’s character, her work, and her relation to the televisual world of the show. When first proposing the story, her editor dismisses the idea:

“Sandra, all we’re doing is reinforcing the stereotypes, just like those goddamn ghetto flicks out there now. Everybody cheering for the Pusherman.”

After accusing him of wanting “uplift only,” Sandra exclaims, “I’m giving you life as lived.” This reference to the Curtis Mayfield-scored blaxploitation film Super Fly (1972)which contains the hit song, “Pusherman,” about the film’s hustling protagonist—recognizes a precedent for Sandra’s mode of storytelling deeply rooted in Mayfield’s own music as it relates to “ghetto flicks” and here to the Deuce, and thus Sandra’s proposed piece for the newspaper. By blending the radical sonic innovations of Hendrix with the funk-soul prophecies of Sly Stone, though with a sharper political edge, Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” anticipated both the sound and cultural significance of many blaxploitation films that would come to define the Deuce as much as pornography. Though the song marks the only time we hear Mayfield’s music during season one of The Deuce, it meaningfully gestures towards a larger story that the show’s world-building techniques work to tell through significant peripheral details. By momentarily dwelling on the significance of several references to blaxploitation cinema vis-à-vis Mayfield’s music, I hope to reveal an important through-line in The Deuce’s aesthetic and its narrative.

The recording sessions for Mayfield’s album Curtis also produced an early demo version of the song “Ghetto Child,” which appears as bonus material on the album’s 2000 rerelease, though it would first find its fuller, fleshed out, and ultimately retitled form as “Little Child Runnin’ Wild” in 1972. The song opens Gordon Parks Jr.’s Super Fly. Playing over shots of East Harlem, Mayfield’s song details the destitute conditions common to America’s inner-cities and the hardscrabble lives of African Americans growing up in ghettoized neighborhoods. With lines like, “Broken home / Father gone / Momma tired / So he’s all alone,” and “Where is the mayor / Who’ll make all things fair / He lives outside / Our polluted air,” both the early demo version of the song and its subsequent rendering demonstrate Mayfield’s particular sociological imagination performed through his music. Though singing from the South Side of Chicago, Mayfield’s music, representative of a certain 1970s urban sensibility, connected him directly with the cinematic as well as street-level world of the Deuce during a time when, along with pornography, a related moral panic sprang up regarding another new kind of visibility: black masculinity on screen throughout inner-city second-run grindhouse theaters, as well as these films’ audiences, especially in the Deuce.

David Church, in his analysis of Times Square as both a physical and culturally mediated symbolic space, argues,

“In addition to fears about sexually deviant audiences, fears over urbanism carried a racially charged component, as young African American audiences were often a vital demographic in the 1970s ‘action houses’ that had once been picture palaces now located in increasingly radicalized areas.”[11]

Analyzing the particular action films commonly exhibited in these locations, Austin Fischer writes how blaxploitation cinema, which “emerged in response to a crisis in cinema audience numbers” as much as “shifts in postwar inner-city demographics,” presented a “direct rejection of integrationism that had characterized postwar [films] featuring the mild-mannered, nonthreatening persona of Sidney Poitier,” in favor of “confrontational separatist messages, articulated and enacted by altogether more assertive black heroes.”[12] Additionally, Ed Guerrero argues that this cycle of early-Seventies blaxploitation films “helped shape a politically self-conscious, critical black audience aware of its commercial power and hungry for new cinematic representations of a diverse range of African American subjects and issues on the big screen.”[13]

Therefore, in the context of blaxploitation’s own history, Poitier represents the message of “uplift only” that Sandra censures her editor for wanting. For her, the inverted racial paradigms, such as those at play in these “ghetto flicks,” speak to what motivates pimps such as Reggie Love, C.C., Larry Brown, and Rodney, things Sandra’s editor fears as damaging to the black community but which Sandra considers a crucial piece of her reporting beyond the simple villain/victim dichotomy.

Though blindspots exist in Curtis Mayfield’s own sociological imagination—his objectification of women is also a major shortcoming shared by Super Fly and many other blaxploitation films[14]—his attempt to tell stories about the disenfranchisement of black people in U.S. inner cities from his own perspective as well as that of pimps and drug dealers marks an early incarnation of the sociological imagination exhibited in The Deuce. As a nod to blaxploitation’s sociocultural legacy, producers of The Deuce reference several of its historically significant films throughout the show, such as C.C.’s aforementioned Cadillac Eldorado that recalls the “pimpmobile” in Super Fly. Additionally, several songs from other blaxploitation films also play in bars and pool halls or are heard from passing cars in a number of scenes. But the more substantive reference made in Sandra’s argument with her editor—a quintessential example of the “What kind of bad?” problem—reveals two important ways The Deuce intersects with Curtis Mayfield’s music and cultural legacy beyond the show’s opening credits: (1) Not only did a particular sociological imagination performed through a short-lived cycle of morally complex and questionable films come to reflect and reciprocally shape a tumultuous place like the Deuce proper (which, I would argue, we hear at its apotheosis in Mayfield’s music); but (2) this fact in itself also reveals the larger significance of pop cultural production involved in telling the story of race, gender, and exploitation constitutive of the physical space and spatial imaginary represented in the show The Deuce.

Institutional melodrama, cultural production, and the culture industry

Focusing on the provenance of the 1970s “porn chic” phenomenon by studying both the industries and human actors directly or tangentially involved and affected by the rise of contemporary film pornograpy, The Deuce presents a certain dialectics of hide and seek where one form of sex work, once hidden, emerges as mass spectacle, absorbed into the mainstream, while another form, once out in the open, finds itself systematically pushed indoors, consigned to semi-private spaces. From its investigation of this dialectic, by now we can see how, in many ways, The Deuce constitutes an extension of what Linda Williams, in her extensive study of The Wire, identifies as an “institutional melodrama” that resists “the simplistic vilification” of evil common to classical melodrama, i.e., the exact kind of reductionism Sandra tried to sidestep in her reporting. By utilizing certain modes of counterpoint storytelling particular to serialized television, institutional melodramas, Williams argues, lay bare the myriad networked connections between industry, institution, and human actor as such by embracing the most entertaining aspects of its unique cultural form.[15] Thus, The Deuce works as a sprawling interrogation of pornography and its discontents in large part because the show’s creators understand the value of entertainment as something other than a dirty word.

Moreover, The Deuce represents an institutional melodrama explicitly in the way that it deals with the very culture industry to which the show itself belongs. Not without its ironies, The Deuce follows what Alison Herman describes as

“the evolution of prostitution and the birth of large-scale porn production in a medium—on a specific network, even—that’s been criticized for its gratuitous and sometimes violent sexual content.”

By portraying sex and the culture industry, even through a meta-cinematic lens, The Deuce undoubtedly runs the risk of re-exploiting the bodies made visible on screen.[16] But this issue itself points to something crucial at stake with regard to the potential payoff for such a proposition: The “absolute power of capitalism,” as Adorno and Horkheimer argue, industrializes all aspects of culture and all forms of human behavior in modern societies through its invisibility, where “even the aesthetic activities of political opposites are one in their enthusiastic obedience to the rhythm of the iron system.”[17] In this regard, then, The Deuce’s act of illuminating the particular industries that are part and parcel of this iron system can itself work to transform these industries by first recognizing and then trying to understand them. In other words, by examining certain particularities of how the industries that mediate sex and culture, and their respective historical processes, intersect with the show’s own mode of cultural production, The Deuce tries to make visible (i.e., recognize) that which too often takes place behind the scenes, so to speak, and in so doing strives to reveal the machinations at work, so that, even if it cannot overcome them, it can at least call them to testify. Or, as Linda Williams again argues, “the defeat of evil by good” may not be essential to melodrama,

“but what is essential…is the dramatic recognition of good and/or evil and in that recognition the utopian hope that justice might be done.”

It means identifying and then taking seriously the show’s own central question: What kind of bad?

Following their momentous claim about the “absolute power of capitalism” vis-à-vis the culture industry, Adorno and Horkheimer proceed to demonstrate how the economic forces of rationalization work in modern cities—full of “decorative industrial management buildings,” “huge gleaming towers,” “slums,” and “city housing projects” designed to reproduce the capitalist system’s dominion over the individual. Because these same forces work over mass entertainment, popular music, and cinema, Adorno and Horkeimer argue for the need to see how modern culture “impresses the same stamp on everything.”[18] However, if “the whole world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry,” as Adorno and Horkheimer would have it, Michael Denning reminds us that “culture is the product and result of labor, part of the same process.”[19] Such an insight aptly applies to a television show so centrally concerned with institutionalized labor, be it sex work, porn film production, policing, organized crime, public policymaking, and newspaper reporting, or art and mass entertainment. Here again we see the significance of pop cultural production in The Deuce’s world-building techniques for an institutional melodrama itself about the culture industry at large. Through a particular sociopolitical verisimilitude that, at the very least, identifies the stakes in certain radical acts of cultural production, The Deuce turns pop cultural reference into reverence for the shared cultural project labored into existence by the denizens of 1970s Manhattan (and beyond, e.g. Curtis Mayfield). Because, as I have hopefully demonstrated, as much as The Deuce is about the physical space and the spatial imaginary of 1970s Times Square, it is no less about a cultural imagination historiographically imprinted upon one of the most mythologized and revisited confluences of space and time in pop culture history—a fact the show directly engages through music as much as moving images.

In addition to Mayfield and the music of blaxploitation cinema, we again witness The Deuce’s expressed reverence for radical acts of cultural production through its invocation of NYC’s early ad hoc disco club “the Loft” in a scene where Paul goes to a warehouse in the city’s former manufacturing district for the invite-only dance party Love Saves the Day. This is David Mancuso’s place at 647 Broadway, a spot central to the formation of disco as a recognizable music/dance cultural formation. Dancing to Dorothy Morrison’s rapturous, southern gospel-tinged R&B cut “Rain” and then “Melting Pot” by Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Paul looks around the room, transfixed, as if momentarily glimpsing an altered future yet unrealized. In a post-Stonewall Inn moment—referenced by multiple characters as a lingering event where the policing of bodies and spaces reached a particular tipping point that led to violence while also signaling the possibility of resistance—perhaps what Paul, a recent target of an illegitimate NYPD sting at a gay porn theater, sees in this moment is the potential for music to create spaces of liberation, even if only temporarily.

Similarly, in one scene during the season finale, Vincent walks into the Hi-Hat, uncharacteristically packed with bohemian-looking youths dancing to a live cover of the proto-punk song “96 Tears.” Caught off guard, Vincent shouts to Abby, “What the fuck is going on?” Abby says she heard the band playing at a rent party down on St. Mark’s Place, the famed East Village strip home to experimental jazz and first-wave punk rock clubs. After Abby explains that she and Paul decided to experiment with bringing live bands into the bar, Vincent asks, “Why’s the singer got all that shit on his face? I thought that went out with Al Jolson?” He soon turns to the Hi-Hat’s de facto bouncer Big Mike, sitting at the bar, and asks him, “What’s it all mean?” To which Big Mike responds, “I don’t know. But I kind of dig it,” and then accompanies a woman onto the makeshift dance floor in front of the band. Vincent looks on with his usual expression of placid skepticism toward the new and unusual. Abby then asks two women at the bar what they think, adding, “Not your usual guitar hero shit, right?” One woman compares the band to a street-hardened Velvet Underground more so than “Ziggy.” The other woman agrees, saying, “Not really glam band,” which Vincent, now sounding a bit nonplussed, mishears as “gang bang.”

He then looks out on his bar with what paradoxically seems a fleeting recognition of the potential transformative significance of that which he professes not to understand: a collapse of history in the form of a three-minute song performed in blackface simultaneously calling up a refracted and shopworn story of early rock music, the racist origins of U.S. sound cinema, and the transubstantiation of NYC punk rock’s historical future in this small semi-underground (both literally and figuratively) bar now bursting with, but also subsumed by, all these inherited signifiers brought to bear on a single moment, a shared utopian impulse as fleeting as Vincent’s curiosity for what it all means. In the crush of dancing bodies, Abby snaps a photograph of the band just before the scene ends.

Closing credits

At the close of this final episode, the Hi-Hat is now empty save for Vincent and Abby—the sound of police presence outside reminding us about Ruby’s murder. Vincent, having just told Abby, “You got me wrong. I love women. But it’s the Deuce,” walks over to the jukebox. Up to now, this jukebox had been a regular point of (mostly) humorous contention throughout the season. In one scene, Vincent’s brother, Frankie, bashes it with a baseball bat to protest extortion perpetrated by an Irish mob muscle man. In another scene, during the bar’s grand opening, Gentle Richie asks if “there’s any Grateful Dead in the juke,” and there isn’t. Moments later, mob boss Rudy Pipilo expresses his contempt for black music’s popularity at the Hi-Hat (and presumably popular culture at large) and in racist terms asks Vincent, “What’s with all this jigaboo shit? I had six Dean Martins in there.” And closing out the final episode, Vincent, perhaps to cut the silence between him and Abby, perhaps to avoid talking, or perhaps to drown out the sound of NYPD out front, puts in a quarter, makes his selection, and “Careless Love” by Ray Charles begins to play. The song fills the room. Within seconds, the song’s acoustic quality shifts into a noticeably non-diegetic timbre, transferring us out of the Hi-Hat, and the season’s closing montage begins. We then see and hear the fallout of season one as Ray Charles sings:

“Oh, careless love / Love, please tell me / What have I done / For you to hurt me all in fun.”

In the offices of the Amsterdam News, we watch Sandra open that day’s copy of the paper, her edited-down story “Tricks of the Trade” buried deep inside. During this moment, Ray Charles sings, “Well, you know / That I once was blind / But know I see / I say that I once was blind / But now I see,” repurposing the famous refrain from “Amazing Grace.” This allusion recalls Curtis Mayfield’s own prescient testimony from the show’s opening, his variation on the theme of black spirituals and the long history of African-American musical forms. A few moments later, the season closes on a lingering shot of Bernice working in Vincent’s parlor before she disappears into her room, and we see another jukebox standing at the end of the long hallway. If we think back, Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” having traversed the infernal strip of 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues through the show’s first season, now sounds as much like a coda to the show as it did a prelude.

Perhaps this transformation is best summed up by Reggie Love late in the season’s fifth episode, aptly titled “What Kind of Bad?” In a barber shop, talking about music with Officer Alston and Gentle Richie, Reggie breaks down what he hears as the essential sonic and near-spiritual qualities of the music produced at Motown’s home recording studio. Claiming that Motown singers record their voices through pipes in the walls of the building, he says,

“The voice go through the ducts and pick up the soul of the place on the way.”


1. Alison Herman, “How Michelle MacLaren Brought The Deuce to Life,” The Ringer, September 6, 2017. https://www.theringer.com/tv/2017/9/6/16260860/michelle-maclaren-the-deuce-interview (Accessed December 14, 2017) [return to text]

2. Full version of Curtis Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1xmXOP3lhM

3. Designed by Matthew Boorus and Alex Hall.

4. This phrasing, “transforming these social types into human beings,” is influenced by Lorrie Moore, “In the Life of The Wire,” New York Review of Books, October 14, 2010, as cited in Linda Williams, On The Wire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 29.

5. In the 1970s, another common nickname for the Deuce was the “Minnesota Strip,” referring to the high number of young women reportedly moving to NYC from the Midwest, either to work as prostitutes, such as with Lori’s character, or with hopes of performing on Broadway or making a career in modeling, but instead end up working in the sex trade. See: Philip Jenkins. Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 114. Thanks to J. Hoberman for bringing this historical reference to my attention.

6. E.g., Laura Hudson, “The Deuce Isn’t About Sex. It’s About Capitalism,” Wired, October 30, 2017. https://www.wired.com/story/the-deuce-hbo/ (Accessed December 14, 2017)

7. C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 7. In her book On The Wire, Linda Williams builds on George Marcus’ notion of “multi-sited ethnography,” and similarly utilizes the term “ethnographic imaginary,” arguing, “Serial television melodrama makes possible the larger canvass of the ethnographic imaginary” (15). Though certainly influenced by Williams’ analysis of The Wire, on which more later, I use Mills’ term here instead because its theoretical application more closely resembles my analysis of Curtis Mayfield’s music in relation to The Deuce.

8. See: Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Buffalo, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 1987), 133.

9. For a detailed study on Marx, commodity fetishism, and pornography, as well as further exploration of the ways “woman-as-commodity exists both as a natural body with a use value and as a body with a socially constructed exchange value,” see Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 115. Also see Esther Leslie’s discussion of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and prostitution through Benjamin’s writings on historical materialism in Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism (London: Pluto Press, 2000), 114.

10. On the notion of the “feminized communist,” of which Richie represents here, see Joan Tronto, “Hunting for Women, Haunted by Gender,” eds. Terrell Carver and James Farr. The Cambridge Companion to the Communist Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 134-151.

11. David Church, Grindhouse Nostalgia: Memory, Home Video, and Exploitation Film Fandom (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), 86. Also, for an early study of 1970s movie houses specializing in blaxploitation films, see Demetrius Cope, “Anatomy of a Blaxploitation Theater,” Jump Cut, no. 9 (1975), 22-23.

12. Austin Fischer, “Go West, Brother: The Politics of Landscape in the Blaxploitation Western,” eds. Austin Fischer and Johnny Walker, Grindhouse: Cultural Exchange on 42nd Street, and Beyond (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 184.

13. Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), 137.

14. For more on this point, see Cristopher Sieving, “Super Sonics: Song Score as Counter‐Narration in Super Fly,” Journal of Popular Music Studies, 13.1 (2001): 77-91.

15. Countering much of the dominant discourse repeatedly certifying The Wire as a “tragedy,” Williams utilizes the term “institutional melodrama” as a means of exploring the relation between the show’s serial form and sprawling content, arguing that the “undeniable innovation of The Wire is its effort to tell a melodramatic story at the level of the social institutions that have themselves repeatedly failed to serve justice.” On The Wire, 135.

16. See Alison Herman’s article for more on how Michelle MacLaren, who directed the show’s pilot episode as well as its season finale, describes the ways she and the show’s production team, including its writers, worked to address this fact.

17. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 258.

18. Ibid., 259.

19. Michael Denning, “Work and Culture in American Studies,” eds. Donald E. Pease and Robyn Wiegman. The Futures of American Studies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 433. In his article, Denning proposes what he calls a “labor theory of culture” as a corrective to cultural theories invested in ideology critique that ignore the social processes of labor-power, arguing for a consideration of modern culture not just as the production, accumulation, and distribution of commodities, but also as work.