Review: Deadwood (2004-2006)

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A Pioneering Overcat

Creator: David Milch                                                                                                                                  Stars: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker
Genre: Drama, History, Western

May 13th, 2006 was a spring day like any other; except for the fact it was the very day in which I knew the epic series Deadwood was going to be dragged through the proverbial muddy thoroughfare, into a darkened ally behind a salon, and shot like a drunken outlaw on his last bottle of whiskey and hope. On this date HBO confirmed it had opted not to pick up the options of actors, which were to expire June of that same year. This meant that a fourth season with the current cast as it stood was unlikely, and also chances of the show returning were limited. Mind you this was also right before the huge Writers Guild of America strike of 2007.

Needless to say, when I saw this news I cursed a fantastic slew of expletives that would have made Al Swearengen proud. While we’re on the topic of sailor slang, according to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), Deadwood throws the F-Grenade over 3,000 times over the course of 3 years and 36 episodes. In case you are trying to do the math, this roughly figures out to over 80 uses of this timeless word in each one-hour episode. Essentially, it’s a show that’s not only fun for the whole family, but also for the budding connoisseur of expletive delivery. If anything, the characters of Deadwood show us all how to properly and effectively insult someone with a matrix of curse words strung together. They especially show us how to expertly use and attribute the word cocksucker to anything and everything-and for this we thank them. I have won many disagreements on the street thanks to Deadwood and its teachings; some I am more proud of than others (we all have our golden favorites). I digress.

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The town of Deadwood is one like others before it. The place is sort of overseen by Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), definitely an appropriate name as the guy swears quite often and quite regularly throughout the series. There’s a sheriff, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a city woman to whom the sheriff takes a shine (Molly Parker) even though he’s got a wife (Anna Gunn). Bullock also runs the local hardware store with a Jewish guy named Sol (John Hawkes). Every town needs a doctor (Brad Dourif) and every gold prospector needs a prostitute to lick his wounds; the best in town being Trixie (Paula Malcomson). While Al owns The Gem, the town’s main joint, there’s another place in town owned by Cy (Powers Boothe) and even some well known types show up named Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) and the town drunk, Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert).

Set in a South Dakota camp-town starting in 1876, Deadwood focused on nothing less than the ongoing clash between civilization and savagery in the American Way of Life, the contrasting desires between law and order and structure and sheer capitalist anarchy. What does humanity look like without regulation and boundaries? It looks a little bit like Deadwood, a community run, in fact if not in official dictate, by bloodthirsty saloon owner Al Swearengen with an authority first challenged by Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock, but eventually  by other wealthy business interests and finally by the most powerful adversaries, the United States of America and nothing less than Manifest Destiny.

When Deadwood first premiered in 2004, I remember that it sent critics and reporters flocking to experts on late 19th Century frontier life, trying to prove that the show’s expletive-laden dialogue was inaccurate and anachronistic. The pursuit, while endearing and intellectually driven, could only get part of the story. No, the residences of the actual historical community of Deadwood probably didn’t swear in quite the same way David Milch’s HBO characters were swearing (i.e with impunity, but also with modern flare), but who really gives a F*ck? Nobody in the in the history of the world, regardless of their time and location, has ever talked in the way the characters of Deadwood talked, so why should we go to DEFCON 1 over a few stray “c*cksuckers”?

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Although it only aired for three seasons, Deadwood put what may be the punctuation mark on one of television’s most venerable genres. After watching Deadwood, is it honestly possible to go back and watch Bonanza or even Have Gun – Will Travel as anything other than quaint ornaments?  And what would one gain from trying to make another Western for at least a respectful period? I think we should be ready to go back to the frontier again by 2015, but even then, whichever showrunner attempts the task had better have a very clear purpose.

Though Westerns have flourished in movies since the silent era, and on TV in the 1950s and ’60s, the genre faded fast in the 1970s. Today it’s represented mostly by occasional cable films and rare hit movies (Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven). Deadwood revived that genre in a way that is almost indescribable. Everything in the show was brilliantly laid out from the character development, prompts/costume designs and storyline. The series was graced by a host of Hollywood well knowns over the course of its three years, though you’d have to be a fool to not believe that Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen is the heart and soul of the entire series and McShane is consistently remarkable throughout the series. Seldom has a western seen such a marvelously rich character who vacillates between sadness, apathy, anger and so much more often within the course of a single episode. Paula Malcomson, Brad Dourif, Jeffrey Jones, Keith Carradine and Gerald McRaney all give remarkable performances throughout the series, but it almost seems unfair to single out anyone as Deadwood features a truly outstanding cast. It is hard not to love and be attracted to each and every character featured in the show thanks to the writers and the actors who played them.

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However, the crowning trait of the show comes down to the fact that as a writer, David Milch is a brilliant guy and in Deadwood, he refused to hold the audience’s hand. In Deadwood, not only do the characters speak in a twisted prose that’s entirely of Milch’s designing  – part Shakespeare, part actual frontier dialect, part Biblical and part Mamet, only with more swearing than any of them and when you throw Mamet into the mix, that’s something of an accomplishment but they speak in the recognized references of the time. If you don’t know about annexation law, if you can’t distinguish between Native American tribes, if you don’t know the racial slurs depicted at different nationalities, if you aren’t aware of proper medical jargon of the day, Milch only rarely steps back to explain. This is something that is rarely seen on televisions these days. Mich has high expectations for his audience and doesn’t take you for a fool or layman.

With the above mentioned in raving detail I will leave you with  some of Al Swearengens best rants/views [link]. I could listen to this man read the phone book all day. He is that awesome.

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