Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)

In 1986, Broadway songwriting legend Stephen Sondheim and dramatist James Lapine turned Bruno Bettelheim’s analytical psychology book The Uses Of Enchantment: The Meaning And Importance Of Fairy Tales into the playful musical Into The Woods, which turned the well-known stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Jack & The Beanstalk into a catchy and clever comment on adventure, desire, and parenting. The show won multiple Tonys, has been revived many times, was made into a hit movie, and remains a regional theater staple. It’s a remarkable example of artists taking unlikely source material—a book of academic cultural criticism—and turning into something the masses can enjoy.

And if The Deuce is to be believed, Eileen “Candy” Merrell had the idea first.

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This is something I love about The Deuce: The characters are smart, but not unbelievably smart. Eileen’s bright enough to know that she can use her power in the smut industry to make a real movie, with a story and themes in between the screwing. And she’s intuitive enough to sense that a fairy tale like Little Red Riding Hood is a great vehicle for what she’s always tried to do with her porn: to reveal what the characters are actually feeling, and to help explain and even condone our common sexual needs. But she’s not well-educated or well-trained enough to put all that onto paper, into a film script; and this isn’t the kind of show that’s suddenly going to turn her into someone she’s not.

Harvey, on the other hand, is well-educated, and never misses a chance to prove it—primarily so he can insist that all that intellectual hoo-hah is silly. He patiently listens to Eileen’s pitches, because he has a lot of affection for her as a person, and because she delivers the goods when it comes to staging and filming genuinely erotic scenes. But he also thinks it’s a waste of money to buy special outdoor lighting and fancy costumes when all his customers really care about is the sex. “A little quaint for a fuck film,” he sighs.

Harvey’s the one who casually name-drops Bettelheim, just to clarify for Eileen that he knows what she’s trying to do, and that it’s probably not going to be worth his or her time. She though takes that cue to go buy a copy of The Uses Of Enchantment, and then to hire an actual writer to turn her notebook full of sketches and ideas into a real screenplay. Her main instruction: “I want to clear out all the quaint shit.” She’ll show Harvey.

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This week’s The Deuce—credited to director Uta Briesewitz and writer Anya Epstein—is called “What Big Ideas,” for obvious reasons. It’s the line Harvey says mockingly to Eileen, in the voice of the Big Bad Wolf (“What big ideas you have!”). It also describes just about every plot-line in the episode.

For example, both Larry and C.C. have begun looking for ways to move beyond pimping—the former by becoming an actor, the latter by pushing himself as a creative consultant on Lori’s movies. Larry seems to be doing better. He struggles with his lines (perhaps because, as Darlene presumes, he can’t read); and he’s more interested in playing smiling, friendly types than the muscular, well-endowed menaces that the industry prefers for guys like him. But given a chance by Candy to improvise his way through a scenario where he plays a dangerous prisoner, he delivers a genuinely moving extemporaneous speech about how his character landed in jail, and how he feels about it.

As for C.C., he actually makes a good suggestion to Lori’s director, saying he should ditch his leering asthmatic cameraman and let the actor on the receiving end of Lori’s blowjob shoot the scene himself, POV-style. He’s also been trying to sell his own original idea for a porno: The Life And Times Of A Pimp.

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All of this is highly embarrassing to Lori, who thinks C.C. should just collect his money—which keeps pouring in, more and more—and “shut the fuck up.” She even strikes a secret deal with a casting agent, to find her jobs C.C. won’t be involved in, but that he’ll get paid for anyway. What neither Lori nor the agent understand though is that C.C., like Larry, has never been good at just sitting back and collecting cash. These pimps want to run their girls. It’s a point of pride.

What’s especially poignant about all this—and has been since this series began—is that everyone’s dreams are ultimately so limited. Eileen, Larry, C.C.… They all sense, mostly rightly, that they have more to give to the world. But they’ve confined their vision to whatever they’re allowed to accomplish in the medium of pornography, where the customers aren’t exactly demanding brilliance.

Even Paul, who’s executing his plan to build a beautiful new gay bar in the Village, is facing skepticism from his primary investor, Vincent, who’s not sure it’s prudent to spend a lot of money on the decor of a place where guys are mainly planning to sneak off into a dark corner. How nice of a joint does it need to be?

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Photo: Paul Schiraldi (HBO)

What we can see though—and the characters can’t—is that times are changing in Times Square, faster than anyone thinks. Detective Alston has his doubts that Ed Koch’s team can do anything about the peep shows, streetwalkers, and massage parlors, especially with every corrupt cop from every surrounding precinct jumping aboard the special task force’s “overtime express.” (“If it was that easy, the Deuce wouldn’t be here,” he grumbles at Koch’s aide Gene Goldman.) But factors beyond Alston’s imagination may soon accomplish what no captain, chief, commissioner, or mayor has ever been able to.

The most pressing concern: The mafia’s multi-family squabble over their Times Square turf is starting to turn deadly. Bobby’s parlor burns down, killing an employee everyone only knew as “Kitty.” (Dorothy actually tracks down the dead masseuse’s family, and learns that her real name was Stephanie, and that she was 15 years old when Bobby hired her… making his indignation last week about competing parlors hiring underage girls all the more hypocritical.) There’s no proof yet that the fire was arson, and certainly no proof of who’s responsible. Nevertheless, one of Rudy Pipilo’s soldiers shoots a rival dead, right in the street (while he’s eating pizza, no less!). The mob is used to being able to operate at will in the Deuce. But even policemen on the take can’t shrug off a rising death toll.

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And then there’s this: At The Hi-Hat, Abby hosts an art-show by a photographer named Viv (Adelind Horan), who flirts with Vincent. As far as The Deuce’s main storylines are concerned, these scenes matter because they show a small but solid wedge being driven between Abby and Vincent. But Viv’s actual work matters too, as part of the show’s larger design. She takes pictures that “bring out the humanity of the marginalized,” turning the denizens of the Deuce into high art.

Viv’s part of a coming wave of photographers, painters, poets, and musicians, who are taking advantage of the cheap rent in a crumbling New York, and are about to revive the city as an intellectual and cultural mecca—the kind of place where, in less than a decade, Into The Woods can be a hit.


Stray observations

  • Remember last week, when I said Frankie was one lucky so-and-so for winning a dry cleaning business in a poker game, right when the mob was about to muscle him out? Yeah, scratch that. The handful of Frankie scenes this week show him scrambling to keep up with demanding dry cleaning customers, and generally looking miserable. The lone exception is when he watches his wife strip. When she storms off the stage because some bozo wants a little extra for his tip, Frankie gives her a genuinely sympathetic, hard-won look and says, “Customer ain’t always right.”
  • The brief vignette this week of Eileen back home with her son and mother doesn’t seem to serve much purpose at first. But maybe it sparks something in Eileen’s head to hear her teenager describe his crush on Julie from The Love Boat, before finding out he’s hiding an issue of Penthouse under his mattress. This is what she wants her Little Red Riding Hood movie to be about: innocence corrupted, secret lusts, and “the hunger and the terror and the risk.”

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