Two of television's best series took important steps Sunday, with The Deuce concluding the second of its three seasons on HBO and Outlander beginning its fourth of at least six on Starz.
David Simon is fated to have everything he does compared to The Wire, and one of the wonders of his career is that his subsequent work belongs in the same room with that classic. He often uses actors multiple times, which increases the chances you'll think of The Wire. The Deuce features Gbenga Akinnagbe (Chris Partlow on The Wire), Chris Bauer (Frank Sobotka), Lawrence Gilliard Jr. (DeAngelo Barksdale), Method Man (Cheese), and Anwan Glover (Slim Charles). Many have noted that The Deuce is more like Simon's Treme than it is like The Wire ... all of the series feature large casts with plenty of characters to keep track of, but where The Wire had unifying themes for each season as well as for the series as a whole, Treme and The Deuce are more scattered. The characters' evolution is more important in the latter two than is a plot that keeps your attention over seasons. Me, I think The Wire is the best series ever, but I also loved Treme. The Deuce is a largely downbeat show ... I was going to say depressing, but I'm not sure that's the right word, so choose whichever you prefer. The best characters on The Deuce (and by "best" I mean the most finely drawn, not just "good guys") aspire to a better place in the world. The reason the show is depressing is that it is rare anyone actually gets to that better place. Part of this comes from our knowledge of where things are headed historically. The first season began in 1971, the second in 1977, and the third will be sometime in the 80s. The series relates the story of the emergence of the "Golden Age" of porn, focusing in particular on Eileen "Candy" Merrell (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a prostitute who first sees porn as a safer alternative to a life on the streets, and then sees opportunities to better herself by moving into directing films. Nothing goes easy for Eileen (or for anyone else, especially with the Mob getting its fingers in everything), but by the end of Season Two, she can envisage a future as a money-making director, having released a hit porn film. What we know and she doesn't is that the Internet is coming, making a lot of those hoped-for profits into something less than that.
Outside of Gyllenhaal, the biggest name in the cast is James Franco, playing twin brothers. But The Deuce revolves far more around its women characters than its men. In most cases, those women's lives are tied in unfortunate ways with men, most obviously in the relationship between pimp and whore. But The Deuce takes care to present this from the perspective of the women, and it makes a difference. And we really want the women to free themselves from their circumstances, which is why their failure to do so seems so heartbreaking.
Here is a scene of Eileen and Lori (Emily Meade), a prostitute with pimp problems that Eileen wants to cast as the lead in her porn version of Little Red Riding Hood:
Meade is a real standout on the show, but also deserving special mention are Dominique Fishback, Gbenga Akinnagbe, and Margarita Levieva.
Outlander is based on a series of historical romance novels by Diana Gabaldon, although "historical romance" somewhat limits what is actually going on in the books, which importantly involve time-travel. When the series begins, the primary eras are England in 1946 and Scotland in 1743 (don't hold me to any of these dates). Claire is the Englishwoman ... Jamie is the Scotsman. I had never really thought about the question "why time travel?", and Gabaldon's explanation is fascinating and makes perfect sense:
I had meant OUTLANDER to be a straight historical novel; but when I introduced Claire (around the third day of writing–it was the scene where she meets Dougal and the others in the cottage), she wouldn’t cooperate. Dougal asked her who she was, and without my stopping to think who she should be, she drew herself up, stared belligerently at him and said “Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp. And who the hell are you?” She promptly took over the story and began telling it herself, making smart-ass modern remarks about everything. At which point I shrugged and said, “Fine. Nobody’s ever going to see this book, so it doesn’t matter what bizarre thing I do—go ahead and be modern, and I’ll figure out how you got there later.” So the time-travel was all her fault.
There is more to this anecdote than just explaining how time-travel worked its way into the plot. It is crucial that Claire takes over the story. On the series (I have only read half of the first novel, so I'm going on TV), Claire's perspective is foregrounded. Just to speak of sex (there is a lot of it in Outlander), Jamie is as much the eye candy as is Claire, and the love scenes between the two are not just highly erotic, but equal in a way you don't often see today. It doesn't hurt that stars Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan have an incredible chemistry. Both are perfectly cast for their characters, but it's as a couple that they truly shine. Simply put, without Balfe and Heughan working together, Outlander would be nowhere as good as it is. (Also, Tobias Menzies, who plays two roles, is horrifyingly awful as the bad one of the pair.)
The excellence of the show lies in good part on the source material ... without Gabaldon's novels, there is no series. But it's more than that, and I have no idea who to credit for the show, other than to mention that when Ronald D. Moore develops a show, I am always going to give it a shot.