The Deuce episode one – Review

Setting a series narrative during a specific timeframe can be problematic. While attention to detail is key, too often the temptation is to positively laden the set with key signifiers while neglecting to develop characterisation. Frequently, the setting itself, rather than feeling like a natural backdrop to an engaging narrative, almost becomes a character in its own right, demanding the attention of the viewer and detracting from the central conceit.

Thus, for a period piece to be done so successfully, the setting needs to feel natural. The characters must feel like they inhabitant this era fully, complete with attention to costuming and location that ensures a believable and realistic result. Thus, clothes need to be appropriately scuffed, streets suitably dingy where appropriate. Mad Men, and Boardwalk Empire both ensured that the narrative focus was on the character development, and while, for some, the setting may have enhanced its appeal, it was the writing itself that led to success. Similarly, Vinyl, the lacklustre series set in the 1970s, paid little attention to writing and chose instead to highlight to an almost hyperbolic degree the apparent glamour and idiosyncrasy of its setting.

The Deuce, the latest effort from David Simon, best known for The Wire, correctly, and impressively, at least thus far, chooses to focus on character, while simultaneously creating an entirely real world. Set in 1971, the series focuses on the rise of the pornography, localising the events around Time Square and the titular 42nd Street. The pilot, as pilots are always compelled to do out of necessity, spends time establishing various storylines which begin to interweave and overlap.

The streets of New York, complete with grime, and bright lights, never feel jarring. Instead, its ability to both present the era and also seamlessly fade into the background highlights the intelligent concept of the series.

James Franco plays Vinnie, a bar worker who struggles with both the demands of family life and his increasingly estranged wife, along with the strain of maintaining a seven day a week job. Given Franco’s recent artistic exploits, it has become all too easy to forget his rather formidable talent when on form. In The Deuce, his laconic style is wonderfully matched to the engaging, exhausted Vinnie, who quickly discovers a talent for attracting punters to his new bar when afforded the opportunity to excise his exploitative business ideas.

Really though, the show thus far belongs to Maggie Gyllenhaal, and her performance as Candy, the sex worker who refuses to align her business with a pimp. Declaring her desire to ensure that nobody makes money from her exploits other than her, Simon’s series goes a long way to both humanise and validate sex work. Candy is an intelligent woman, who, for reasons as yet unknown, has engaged with this lifestyle in a manner that seemingly affords her both agency and control.

While it is impossible to predict the trajectory of the series based on a pilot episode, The Deuce is an impressive first episode, allowing its characters, and actors, an opportunity to truly breathe and inhabit the period.




The reality of Dr Foster


It’s rather telling that for some, the actions of the titular Dr Foster are hyperbolic in the extreme. Indeed, reviews of the first episode of the second series pointed towards her supposedly unhinged, and preposterous behaviour. Certainly, it is easy to refer to Gemma Foster’s behaviour towards her ex-spouse Simon as entirely unrealistic and at times, utterly extreme, but to simply decry them as unhinged undermines the trajectory of these actions.

Clearly, the series is intended to be viewed as a glossy thriller, which while retaining elements of the inane and banal everyday life, is elevated to an extreme level. There is then, no suggestion that the actions of Gemma, which includes blackmail and sinister, calculated machinations, is truly supposed to represent the sane actions of a wronged woman, and yet, largely, they are only narrowly removed from reality. Certainly, her actions are dangerous, yet, it is easy to identify and understand the steps that have taken place beforehand that have subsequently led to her actions.

Some may find Gemma’s actions isolating. Her ability to orchestrate the behaviours of those around her is almost undeniably admirable. Yet, despite, or perhaps due to, Gemma’s intelligence, she is distant from others around her. Colleagues and neighbours who profess to be her friends or supporters willingly lie to her. A fellow GP, a supposed friend, knew about the affair in the first series and neglected to inform Gemma. In the first episode of the second series (aired last week), this friend openly denied that she would be attending Simon’s wedding party, only for Gemma to find her in attendance.

Gemma is continually betrayed, and in Simon’s decision to embark upon and sustain an extra-marital affair, is deeply hurt. Her actions then, while certainly punishing, are, given the upset caused, almost reasonable.

Dr Foster then, is not, as many reviewers have claimed, a melodrama intended to gratify through shock. Rather, it is a depiction of the vulnerability and injury caused when a person is betrayed by the person that is supposed to know them best. The person to who you have exposed your true self. Gemma’s hurt is not simply one of jealousy or betrayal. Its pain and subsequent consequences will never truly leave her. She cannot move on from Simon’s actions. The casual disloyalty of those who profess to be friends is inconsequential. Simon is the epicentre.


The fallacy of Friends


Much has been written about the problematic nature of Friends. Despite finishing in 2004, the influence and popularity of the series has hardly waned, and indeed, with its continued airing, the series has attracted a new, younger generation of fans who live vicariously through the characters.

The series is problematic for a myriad of reasons, and arguably, has little success in representing almost any demographic. Its reductive depiction of people of colour was highlighted towards the end of the series run, and the writers attempted, rather weakly, to address this with the inclusion of Charlie (Aisha Tyler) in season ten. The fact that this was the first time that such a character was included given both the setting and the narrative focus, is rather ridiculous. Similarly, its depiction of homosexuality, or rather, its professed perception of it is hugely questionable. Numerous YouTube videos are dedicated to highlighting the openly hostile and homophobic humour that underpinned much of the series.

Seeing a Twitter thread recently, which argued for a central Joey and Rachel relationship rather than Rachel and Ross, the impact and influence of the series upon viewer’s perception of romance cannot be underemphasised. This is a series that has impressed upon multiple generations a hyperbolic, idealised version of love and relationships. A series which has professed that romance must be declarative, and rigid in order to be deemed successful. The damaging nature of this fallacy can be seen in its audience’s devotion to this idyllic concept.

Friends created and consistently perpetuated a myth, a myth that in turn, has become a reality to aspire to for its impressionable viewership. An ideal that focused on relationships that were only complete if its characters could partake in witty banter, grand gestures and supposedly comic set pieces. Regardless of the questionable healthy status of these relationships they were, and continue to be held up as aspirational.

Take Monica and Chandler’s relationship, one which is borne out of friendship. Initially, the relationship is highlighted as passionate. One that is built on mutual respect for one another. However, as the series progresses, their clear disdain and fear of one another increases. Chandler’s lack of sexual prowess is frequently mocked, and Monica’s strict adherence to tidiness and cleanliness is enough to terrify Chandler’s with his less rigid habits. There is a running joke in which Chandler, having broken the couple’s wedding crockery, is secretly reinstating it, surreptitiously purchasing pieces to replace those which have smashed. The secrecy, and the implications of this, are held up as comedic, despite the clearly uneven dynamic between the two. Monica’s domineering attitude is presented as inducing hilarity, rather than being highlighted for what it truly is: a rather damaging and entirely questionable wielding of power.

Similarly, Rachel and Ross, whose relationship is arguably the central relationship throughout the series, is presented idealistically. Their relationship though, despite its popular perception, is torrid. Ross’ ambitions are deemed as more important than Rachel’s, and his decision to ask her to stay in New York rather than pursue her career is presented as the romantic solution. Ross never considers travelling to France with Rachel, and allowing her to develop professionally, despite his own lack of career progression. Indeed, insights into Ross’ teaching ability are held up for ridicule, and he is presented as being terrible at his job, whereas Rachel’s ability is consistently reinforced.

How then, have these relationships become so entrenched within popular culture? Why have they become the ideal to which its viewers aspire to? It seems bizarre that they are largely still presented unquestioningly, particularly when set against the backdrop of more recent relationship incarnations.

The myths perpetuated by ‘Child Genius’

Now in its fifth series, Channel 4’s Child Genius has developed from its initial conception. Originally the programme was rendered as a documentary style series which explored the lives of gifted children, but more recently has progressed to a reality TV series in which young children with high IQs are encouraged to compete against each other.

The series depicts these young children and their families as they proffer insights into their child’s very specific form of genius. Thus we hear that nine-year-old Fabio is much better at spelling than his older sister Olivia, who normally wins everything. Fabio and Olivia’s mother hopes that Fabio will perform the best in the series in order to improve his confidence. Quite how standing up in front of peers and parents and offering his best phonological assumptions in order to spell a range of preposterous words is supposed to imbue him with esteem is entirely questionable.

Indeed, the entire conceit of Child Genius is completely questionable for a myriad of reasons. At its core, the very idea of pitting young children against one another in a pressurised environment is thoroughly cruel. Regardless of the child, encouraging such competition, as well as the form of judgement that the show includes, is highly destructive. For many of these children their intelligence and high IQ has come to define their very being. Their definition and the manner in which they perceive themselves is through the lens of their intelligence. Bringing this into question, and forcing them to confront their level of intelligence in relation to other children, compels them to question their own identity.

Many of the children are left bereft after failing to recall a particular spelling or the exact order of a pack of cards that they have been instructed to memorise. Scenes depict the children endlessly revising with their parents, spending all of their free time working to expand their knowledge base. These children don’t appear to have fun. There is no real joy of learning here, learning is only done in the pursuit of gaining intelligence and recognition, not for the love of learning itself.

The manner of testing in the series is also questionable, with its very narrow definition of intelligence. The spelling round, for example, would render a dyslexic child a failure simply because of their difficulties with spelling. These children may have excellent memories, and an interest in reading or physics at a young age, but this is never depicted as being applied to developing analytical skills. The series uses lazy signifiers as a means of highlighting intelligence. Thus, we hear of one boy posturing his ideas regarding Brexit as evidence of his interest in current affairs, and therefore, evidence of his intelligence. The fact that his opinion is not only superficial, with little critical thinking, but is also clearly repeated from his parents, is not questioned. Rather, it is held up as further consolidation of his superiority.

Encouraging children to use these forms of signifiers forces them to consider intelligence in a restrictive and reductive manner. Furthermore, these cultural signifiers do not take class privilege into account, and it is no coincidence that the majority of the children featured are from privileged backgrounds in which they have had access to books, additional tutoring, and a stable education.

The aimless pursuit of this superficial title becomes increasingly bizarre when, in the first episode of the latest series, one boy chooses to continue to partake in the competition despite his mother being in intensive care. He states that he is doing so to make his mother proud, and certainly, it would appear that this is what she would want him to do, and yet, the scene in which his father nearly breaks down over the situation feels voyeuristic. Similarly, those familiar with the series will recall the countless occasions that the children, after failing on a task, become children once again, no longer the mini-adults that their intellect portrays them as being. The fact that the series effectively encourages children to negate their childhood in the pursuit of a prize and a title is, rather simply, wrong. The very nature of the series is entirely insidious.

The problematic nature of Don’t Tell the Bride

Don’t Tell the Bride is, as it will readily admit to being, trash TV. It is not supposed to be taken seriously, and it is clear, in its contrived notion of reality, that its simple objective is to entertain. It is purported simplicity and throwaway nature though, that makes it so questionable in its representation of gender. A TV series that is eminently watchable, popular, and easy to engage with at any point in the episode (encouraging casual viewers to begin watching at any point in the episode) should always be brought into question. Its professed casual nature and silliness mean that its viewers are more susceptible to any moments of insidiousness.

Those familiar with the concept of hyperreality will recognise the importance of highlighting the pseudo-reality of Don’t Tell the Bride, particularly given its proliferation and popularity. The continually reasserted trope of women being princesses on their wedding day, or of men selfishly using a large proportion of the wedding budget to provide themselves with a decadent stag do, allows such negative concepts to gain traction, and in turn, gain belief with viewers.

Each episode follows the same format, with the bride professing her desire to have a special day juxtaposed with the groom’s desires to have a showy, themed wedding. There have been occasions where the groom has considered the bride’s sensibilities, but there are rare, given that they don’t generate the manner of entertainment that the show has become associated with.

Too often, the women in Don’t Tell the Bride, despite harbouring very real complaints against their counterpart, are portrayed as harridans, whose absence allow the groom to enact his masculine proclivities of drinking, playing computer games and indulging in sport. Reinforcing these outdated stereotypes, and setting genders as so diametrically opposed is hardly progressive. Rather, to reinforce such demarcated gendered roles is damaging. Grooms who express their love for their bride and neglect to engage in with standard stag do behaviour are held up for mockery, with their fellow stag do attendees laughing at their devotion. While brides who profess a desire for a particular form of a wedding are heralded as demanding.

The show revels in depicting men as indulging in behaviour that has become associated with typical masculine pursuits, intentionally contrasting shots of men drinking, or indulging in juvenile behaviour, with shots of the bride wandering around a country estate as she discusses her dream wedding.

This concept itself is questionable. The idea that the wedding day must be perfect, one in which the bride feels like a princess and has every whim catered for, encourages the infantilising behaviour. The idea that a grown, adult woman, desires to act and be treated like a princess is entirely suspect. Following, and encouraging this model of gendered roles encourages the couple to be perceived only through a heteronormative lens that allows for little else.

While Don’t Tell the Bride is, and certainly can be, enjoyed as an indulgence, its reinforcement and purveyance of such roles should, and must be acknowledged.

In praise of Fresh Meat

It would be easy for the casual viewer to dismiss Fresh Meat as another hyperbolic comedy. Certainly, its comedic moments, while often grounded in reality, do frequently present as entirely inane and improbable. Its characters too, for some, are largely unlikeable, with their selfish nature preventing true audience engagement. Yet, to believe this is to not truly engage with the brilliance of the series.

Highlighting the all too recognisable types that students meet, or aspire to become, at university, the series offers a realistic insight into university life, while employing ridiculous moments of humour, moments that, in stemming from reality, offer as cautionary conceits.

What largely helps to make the series so wonderful, is its dedication to character development, particularly the development of the female characters. Each character embarks on a clear trajectory, and each is left changed by the series end. The series initially presents each character as a clear type, utilising well-known tropes to convey to its audience their characterisation. This simplistic use of stereotyping is effective, particularly when these stereotypes are so clearly subverted as the narrative progresses, encouraging the audience to question their previous misconceptions.

Take Josie, for example, a character whose seemingly sensible nature and devotion to becoming a dentist is rapidly unravelled as she struggled to truly embed herself within university lifestyle. Her Welshness is initially used to convey a familiarity, and the other characters, perhaps through her nationality, perceive her as the group’s matriarch. She cooks food for her housemates when ill, and is the one character who is studying a course that will lead to a clear career.

The breakdown of her relationship with Dave, who she has left behind in Wales to start university, causes Josie to question the nature and state of her life and results in a rapid spiralling out of control. Quickly, Josie begins to act in an increasingly erratic and unpredictable nature, resulting in her being forced to leave her course. Her subsequent relationship with Kingsley does, briefly, bring her stability, but she quickly realises that this form of traditional stability is not one that she wishes to embark upon. Through her breakdown, Josie is compelled to question her actions, and in turn her own nature.

Similarly, Oregon, aware of her class privilege, attempts to hide her origins as the horse owning Melissa, essentially adopting a costume through her assumed moniker. Her admiration of Vod, causes her to lose sight of herself and her roots and causes her to lose any sense of stability that she previously had. Her belief in her academic ability is never personally brought into question, and Oregon, despite her lack of self-belief in terms of her very personality, never doubts her academic ability until it is too late. This then forces to Oregon, like Josie, to question the preconceived idea that she had for her own life. Both Josie and Oregon started university with a clear plan, and by the end of their study, have rejected their previous notions of themselves.

Vod too is confronted with the idea that her nature is not static, but is susceptible to change and development. For Vod, a character whose troubled childhood is only alluded to, the idea that she can be academically and professionally successful proves to be a revelation. Interestingly, Vod, like Oregon, is dependent on her best friend. Both Oregon and Vod view each other through the lens of their friendship, and before the end of the series, allow this relationship to define their identity.

The male characters in the series are engaging, but their development is not as notable as that of the female characters. It is praiseworthy that Fresh Meat allows the female characters in the series the room to progress and grow. Notably, they are largely afforded this opportunity through the more stable nature of the male characters, who, while allowing themselves to become embroiled in various escapades, are largely dependable. Fresh Meat’s approach to its female character, while problematic at times, is relatively innovative and refreshing, allowing for thei

r trajectories to change and develop while also proving to be a source of comedy. Importantly, the female characters in Fresh Meat are allowed and indeed encouraged, to be funny. That this is still notable, demonstrates its vital nature.