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Living in Deadwood

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Filthy, profane, pornographic, misogynistic, bloodthirsty, chimerical.

Innovative, ingenious, inspired, realistic, unflinching, imaginary.

Whatever your view of the HBO series “Deadwood” – if you even have one – you can find ample support on either side. I, for one, consider it just what the HBO original series advertisements call all their creations: “original, groundbreaking, award-winning,” etc. Deadwood (with its season two finale scheduled for May 22) is the unpolished, warts-and-all truth about the settling of the American frontier.

I freely admit I am terribly prejudiced as I have been a fan of Deadwood’s creative force, David Milch, for decades. I was hooked with “Hill Street Blues.” I was reeled in with “NYPD Blue.” I fought against drag of the reel when he struggled through addiction and a creative fog with “Murder One” (1995), “Total Security” (1997), and “Big Apple” (2001) which he put together without his long-time partner, Steven Bochco. But David Milch has landed me, hook, line and sinker with Deadwood. He has – but I really hope he hasn’t – reached as high a creative arc one can reach with this view of the Dakota territories, circa 1880. While I am not much of a television-aholic as I once was (thanks to the spate of reality detritus clogging the airways), it is the one show that I actually plan an evening around. Fortunately, that evening is Sunday and easy enough to clear out.

The addiction started simply enough when the first season of Deadwood came out earlier this year. I had seen the occasional advertisement on HBO and an occasional review that sounded promising but it was the “Created by David Milch” that cinched the deal. Popping the first DVD of the set into the player was not accompanied by any real preconceptions since, while I knew Milch could write cop dramas very well, I had no idea how he would work with a western. The answer, quickly apparent, was that classic “Milch-speak” works as well in Deadwood, South Dakota as it does in New York.

And the formula Milch has developed over 25 years of writing and producing is not only geographically nonspecific it is time-insensitive as well. Dialogue is used to convey not just information but mood. “Anyways” is Milch-speak to signify either “it’s time to change the subject of this conversation” or “you are boring me and I am going somewhere else with my thoughts and, possibly, my body.” It means the same thing whether it is spoken by Andy Sipowicz in 2004 or Al Swearengen in 1880. To David Milch, dialogue just gets in the way of the actors and the action and is to be kept at a minimum. Storytelling and acting are the keys and they are at the center of all of Milch’s work.

And, when it is all boiled down, it is all about the story-telling. How else does one explain taking a serviceable but hardly distinguished actor like Ian McShane (never heard of him before, have you?) And turn him in one short 12 episode series into a Golden Globe Award winner and a sex symbol, at least to some women. An actor who has been knocking around in films and TV since the late 70’s and whose most recent “claim to fame” was as the villain in “Cody Banks: Secret Agent” has gone from C-list actor to A-list celebrity. And, baring an unknown talent transplant from Lawrence Olivier, it is the writing and the scripts and the storytelling that make the actor. And David Milch has done that with McShane, just as he did with Dennis Franz. [He did it with David Caruso as well but Caruso made the mistake of thinking it was actually he, himself, that made David Caruso a star. His career is only now recovering from that delusion.]

Equally important to Milch is that there are never “just” black and white characters, ever. There is never just clearly a bad and a good. Despite all his warts (alcoholism, spousal abuse, child abandonment, racism, etc., ad infinitum), Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) was one of the most beloved cops in television history. He was honest; he was real. And when you dug way, way down to the core of his human essence, he was a decent human. But, as Milch would have it, it takes a lot of digging to find that truth.

In Deadwood, the flawed hero is even more obscure in his humanity. He is the previously mundane and unrecognized Ian McShane as Al Swearengen. Swearengen was one of the founding fathers of Deadwood and runs the town with an iron fist and a sharp blade. When we are introduced to him in season one, he is a ruthless, conniving, murderous pimp who, by all appearances, would just as soon feed you to Mr. Wu’s pigs (this method of disposal of one’s enemies is story all unto itself) as steal your gold. But, as the episodes roll on we learn Al is not the Beelzebub he would have all those around him believe. He defends and employs a crippled housekeeper at the Gem Saloon and, while he bellows obscenities and humiliations at her almost hourly, he would cut the heart out of anyone who dared do the same. He demeans women regularly and enthusiastically in his saloon/brothel, but let anyone else offend his favorite (and possibly the only female he has ever loved) Trixie, and woe be unto him. When the local lay preacher falls terminally ill from a brain tumor and seizures, it is Al Swearengen who mercifully and, almost, tenderly, euthanizes him. In David Milch’s world – as in ours – even the most vile humans have a glimmer of compassion, somewhere.

Conversely, the knights in shining armor in Milch’s Deadwood are also flawed. The closest thing to a hero in the series is Seth Bullock, played by Timothy Olyphant. The reluctant sheriff is a flawed and troubled character. He set out from North Dakota, where he was a Marshall, hell bent to seek his fortune as a merchant in Deadwood. But he is inextricably pulled back in by his moral fiber’s call to bring law and order to this purgatory over which Swearengen rules. But, rather than enemies, he finds himself strangely allied with his ethical antithesis in the town’s quest for self rule and voting rights. His morality is further challenged when, after doing the “right thing” and marrying his dead brother’s wife, he falls in love with the femme fatale, Anna Garrett (Molly Parker), recently widowed at the hands of Swearengen and heir to the richest gold claim in the town.

These are but a few of the circus of characters in Deadwood. Cy Toliver (Powers Boothe) enters to play the even more evil foil for Swearengen with his own brothel and casino. Wild Bill Hickock (Keith Carradine) met his end there in season one but his sidekicks, Calamity Jane (Robin Weigart) and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) are still important pieces to Milch’s web of human, well, er – calamity. The artistry with which Milch keeps the thickening strands of the Deadwood web and the constant ebb and flow of allies and enemies is a wonder to watch. It is a soap opera with teeth; Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Knot’s Landing and Dallas with dirt, grime, and horse droppings. It is, unquestionably, the best series on television, cable or otherwise. [Trivia Fact: Ian McShane actually was on Dallas in 1989 as suave Englishman Don Lockwood. His character tempted Sue Ellen away from J.R. Ewing and ended up marrying her.]

As the finale for season two approaches on May 22, it promises to set the stage for the next season with even more plotlines. Who will meet their end before contract renewals is anyone’s guess, though I have heard that Sy Tolliver (Powers Booth) will be leaving in the finale. Who will become Swearengen’s evil foil for next year? Will it be the arrival of Hurst, the Klondike multimillionaire from San Francisco? Who will stay and become the nemesis? Or will Hurst’s psychotic flunkie, Wolcott, stay around (personally, I doubt that “Mr. W” will live through the finale but never try and predict David Milch’s twists and turns)? And what will become of the Chinese family feud of Mr. Wu (old school) versus Mr. Lee. One – or both – clearly, must die.

Whatever happens, Deadwood is one of those rare – and becoming almost extinct – dramas that entertain and capture the imagination of its viewers. In a broadcast world inundated with video cameras following pseudocelebrities and want-to-be-someone’s through increasingly fake competitions and paper mache worlds, Deadwood is qualifies as art. It is “reality” as I really imagine it was in the mud and muck of the Dakota frontiers in the late 1800’s. With writers and scripts becoming useless relics in television today, Deadwood is one of the last beacons of what the broadcast medium can and should be. Along with FX’s “The Shield,” “Rescue Me,” and “Nip/Tuck” and a few rare other exceptions, let us hope that this sort of artistry and creativity can survive the Pet Rock craze of reality television.

For, in comparison, I will take Deadwood’s “fantasy” over what euphemistically is called “reality television” every day of the year, and twice in leap years.

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  • Shouldn’t this be under Video?

    Fine post

  • Somebody switched it over, Aaman.

  • gonzo marx

    watch Deadwood or i’ll toss all you cocksuckers feet first into the woodchipper…

    nuff said?


  • I don’t get HBO and can only get three Netflix DVDs at a time, so Deadwood has been on my list for a while now. Trying to get through Carnivale Season One, then Sopranos Season Five, then…

    If only the wife would stop insisting on mixing in a movie every now and again!

  • I love this show. Swearengen is a character you can loathe and like in the same episode.

    You can do a whole drinking game based on how many times they same “cocksucker” per episode.

  • Nicolette write: You can do a whole drinking game based on how many times they same “cocksucker” per episode.

    Reply: You would be pretty drunk after each show. (grin) Maybe one shot for every 5 for Al, and one shot for 3 from Jane and Trixie, and one shot per utterance of “cocksucker” from every one else. There would be a bonus of two shots for every utterance of the word from Alma or Seth. Keeping up with Al and Jane would be enough to put me under the table.

    Al is the most lovable villain ever, IMHO. Just when you start to think he is totally corrupt, you see him do something so off character it is downright tender.

    I just love the writing. It is truly becoming a lost art. And Milch has the touch. The scripts turn the whole cast of serviceable but ordinary actors into complete stars.

    Stars are made from scripts and script choices not just talent. I watched one of our generation’s best, DeNiro, recently in “Godsend.” Even an actor of his quality couldn’t save that crap. And then you think back to “Godfather II” and “Raging Bull.” It’s the writing, not the acting, that makes stars. And the script writing never gets enough credit.

    Sorry for the tangent.





  • If you really want to get drunk fast you do the drinking game during the episode called Mr Wu. That’s the one where Wu is in Al’s office trying to explain that someone stole the dope.

  • Postscript:

    Season 2 ended 05/22/2005 and the ending bodes well for the future of the series.

    In the finale, Al gets what he wants from Yankton, Alma marries Ellsworth, Mr. Lee gets taken out by Mr. Wu (with a big assist from Al’s henchmen), Mr. Hurst arrives (the only disappointment was his seemingly banal character), Mr. Wolcott is discovered by his employer (Mr. Hurst) and hangs himself and, to my great joy, Powers Booth (the evil Tolliver) gets gutted by the new preacher who earlier in the day married Alma and Ellsworth.

    I am sure this make no sense to anyone who has not followed the series but it was a classic setup for Season 3 and I thought I would give it a notice in this thread. David Milch continues to excel in writing and the series remains a classic tale of the real old west.



  • From two weeks ago — Blogcritics’ editors liked this one. It’s a pick of the week. Congrats. Put the news up proudly on your site.

    Here’s a link to the rest of this week’s picks where we say why we chose ’em.

  • For fans of the magnificent HBO Deadwood series there is a new source of all things Deadwood, both real and fictional — The Real Deadwood Podcast. Hosted by Paul Dennis, it is a variety show from the real Deadwood in the Black Hills of South Dakota for fans of the award-winning Deadwood series all over the world combining interviews, entertainment and news from both Deadwoods.

  • Jesse

    long time coming but i love this show, three years since the last post uh oh, best drinking game, dress up like cowboys, (with a modern twist if you have to) take a shot when they cocksucker, or they themselves take a shot, choose a character and drink along with them. 4 or 5 of us all above 23 years of age up to 35 get sloppy with Deadwood classic, I can’t wait to do it again.