The premieres of two big period dramas were last Sunday, and I had a somewhat mixed reaction to them overall, even as I’ll freely admit I’m excited to see where both go…
The Deuce…In a bizarre way, David Simon’s new HBO series (loaded with sex scenes, most of which aren’t sexy) is just as romantic as the lush, moony-eyed “Outlander,” except veteran journalist Simon is in love with a different type of anachronism: a New York City that felt dangerous and sleazy. Despite Simon’s astute “The Wire” observations on the drug war and how street crime systematically ruined Baltimore, I don’t believe for a second he believes today’s relatively crime-free NYC is better than the 70’s shithole he’s spent a lot of HBO’s money to convincingly conjure up here. That’s always been the paradox at the heart of most real journalists: they want to show an uncaring first-world how fucked up most of the world is, but they really aren’t at home in places that get better either. The danger and sleaze is what’s drawing them in.
How else to explain why Simon is choosing to focus on a 70’s NYC that no longer exists when the very real world we’re currently occupying has plenty of things he could explore? Although I loved “The Wire,” and his limited series “Show Me a Hero,” I wasn’t as big a fan of “Generation Kill,” or especially the stagnant, indulgent “Treme.” Still, “The Deuce” is the first time you can really call anything he’s worked on that most dreaded of words: irrelevant. And you may find your patience being tested in scenes where old-school pimps talk about Vietnam or Times Square hookers prowl the streets, when we live in an era where maximum surveillance, hurricanes, and Trump have their hooks in NYC. Ironically, a lot of money has been spent to make NYC look like shit again, and although I’ve been dying for HBO to get back to human-based, non-fantasy or Sci-Fi dramas, I can’t say that this is really what I had in mind or selling any less of a fantasy than those shows are. Still, a fantastic cast headed by James Franco, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and several stars-of-tomorrow like Dominique Fishback or the effortlessly appealing Margarita Leviva will probably make me watch this a full season…even if I learned the hard way with “Treme” that not all Simon shows reward loyalty. Grade for Season Premiere Only: C+
Outlander…The buzz on the show hasn’t cooled much since it’s fantastic first season (one of the rare deep period shows that can make the past come alive, feel relevant to the present, and indulge in the romanticism we associate with the era), but the quality may have. I wasn’t terribly impressed with the back-half of season two, and I’m a little nervous that the show seems to have gotten rid of its best villain—Tobias Menzies dark-hearted, sado-sexual Captain Jack Randall, exposing the twisted psychology beneath British “civilization” rooted in oppression—in the 3rd season opener. After all, the Menzies we’re really interested in isn’t the WWII-era cuckhold Frank that Claire is now living with and (apparently) going to raise Jaime’s red-headed kid with. I feel bad for Frank, truly, what husband can anticipate his wife literally time-travelling and becoming involved with a man hell-bent on killing your ancestor?
But still…the series has spent too little time building their relationship for the audience to want anything other than Claire time-traveling back to Jaime. A more enlightened approach may be that she truly belongs with both of these men, and they have a somewhat polygamous relationship through the centuries (as they do now), but that seems unsustainable on this “Outlander” where one guy is so clearly playing the dull end of this love triangle, poor dude. Grade for Season Premier Only: B- [Although this show is a slow-burner that usually begins wowing later in the season…if it does at all, so one episode is perhaps to be taken with a grain of salt.]