TV's Best of the Decade: No. 6 - 'Deadwood'
David Milch created TV's great Western, using Ian McShane and some filthy language
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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 a modern flair), but so what? Nobody in the history of the world, regardless of their time or their location, has ever talked the way the characters on "Deadwood" talked, so why quibble over a few stray "cocksuckers"?
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 "Gunsmoke" or even "Have Gun - Will Travel" as anything other than quaint curios? 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.
Coming in at No. 6 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade, and very possibly deserving of a Top Five slot (no arguments here) is HBO's "Deadwood."
More after the break...
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 business interests and finally by that most powerful of adversaries, the United States of America and nothing less than Manifest Destiny.
The run of "Deadwood" was brief. The show's first season was superb. The show's second season elevated it to a place as possibly TV's best drama -- and in 2005, that actually meant something. An otherwise excellent third season, using no less than George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) as an adversary, seemed to fall a little flat, with a short (49 minute) finale that wasn't even written by David Milch (well, except in the sense that ever "Deadwood" episode was written by Milch, which they all kinda were). It wasn't a bad finale. In fact, with Statehood looming, it was an appropriate finale. But it was also a finale that seemed to require some kind of topper, but a fourth season was ruled out and a series of HBO original movies, initially set up as an inevitability, never materialized and that window has now presumably closed. Instead, viewers got "John From Cincinnati."
As a writer, Aaron Sorkin is a smart guy. He likes to throw out concepts, Latin phrases and lyrics from operettas and have the characters explain to each other the things they don't understand. It's a smidge condescending, but it's also fun and intellectually proprietary, so much so that when I use a phrase like "post hoc ergo propter hoc" or quote from Gilbert and Sullivan, people inevitably assume I'm referencing an Aaron Sorkin script.
I mention Sorkin only to make this contrast: 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 achievement -- but they speak in the acknowledged 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. It's all just woven into the dialogue and you have to keep up as best you can. Understanding anything is completely dependent upon the context.
And the context is an utter mess, literally. Deadwood is a mud pit, a sewage dump, a hole cut in the ground and filled with tents, rickety shacks and hastily constructed buildings. Every character on the show walked around caked in dirty and, for the men at least, buried under a prodigious growth of facial hair. The language of "Deadwood" was impenetrable for neophytes and the environs weren't much more welcoming. Just as I occasionally had to rewind to parse snatches of dialogue, I also sometimes needed a few episodes to distinguish between one burly bearded gentleman and the next. The "Deadwood" cast may have featured a few familiar faces, but those faces were so obscured as to blend in with the rest of the gang.
Emmy voters literally couldn't see past the grime. In 2005, reflecting the second season, "Deadwood" won an impressive five Emmys: Art direction, cinematography, costumes, hairstyling and makeup. How totally were Emmy voters unable to see what was really happening on "Deadwood"? In three seasons, Ian McShane only earned one Emmy nomination and he lost that year to James Spader for "Boston Legal." One can only imagine how Al Swearengen would have responded to that. Spader, in fact, won all three of the Emmys McShane would have been eligible for, one of those black marks that makes you wonder why we bother covering the Emmys at all. Fortunately, the Television Critics Association gave McShane an award for Individual Achievement in Drama, a vote that earned us a place on the grateful actor's Christmas card list for several years. Yes, I still have the cards.
It's a vote that McShane earned by taking HBO's tradition of fearsome anti-heroes and pushing it past the realm of "Oz" and "The Sopranos" and even "The Wire." Swearengen was a far more effective sociopath than Tony Soprano or Omar Little or Simon Adebisi because he had legitimate institutional power. Swearengen would slit your throat, shoot you or feed you to the pigs without hesitation, but he'd be just as able to greet visiting officials and dignitaries with a rhetorical flourish and a free drink at the Gem, just as adroit shepherding prostitutes as conning a gentleman. It was the part of a lifetime for McShane and although he's gotten some good work out of it (showing a few similar colors in "Kings") and some dismal paycheck work out of it ("Death Race" couldn't possibly have felt good), it will be quite a shock if he finds anything of similar quality until its his turn to play King Lear at the National Theatre [within five years, one would have to guess]. McShane was made for Milch's twisted prose and when Swearengen had to suffer infirmities -- the second season arc with the gleet was excruciating -- McShane nailed the physicality as well.
Going back to awards for a second, I often complain that for a group of actors, the Screen Actors Guild is sorely ignorant regarding what constitutes an acting "ensemble." Case in point: One "Deadwood" ensemble nomination in three eligible years. It's an offensive snub because it's almost impossible to imagine how one could list every member of the "Deadwood" ensemble, every veteran character actor who suddenly found themselves with the parts of a lifetime. We're talking about long-term regulars like (in alphabetical order, for the sake of simplicity) Jim Beaver, Powers Boothe, Sean Bridgers, W. Earl Brown, Dayton Callie, Kim Dickens, Brad Dourif, Zach Grenier, John Hawkes, Ricky Jay, Geri Jewell, Jeffrey Jones, Paula Malcomson, Molly Parker, Ralph Richeson, Leon Rippy, William Sanderson, Brent Sexton, Keone Young, Robin Weigert and Titus Welliver. But we're also talking about short-timers like Ray McKinnon, Franklyn Ajaye, Stephen Tobolowsky, Sarah Paulson and Brian Cox, plus the incomparable Keith Carradine, Gerald McRaney and Garret Dillahunt, who earned a permanent place on list of acting favorites by playing two very different characters in the first and third seasons.
And that makes no mention of Timothy Olyphant, who was the show's ostensible star, always able to find new shadings of teeth-gritting determination. As melancholy as it must have been for McShane to find a career capping role at 62, try being Olyphant, who will be playing what looks to be a variation on Seth Bullock in FX's upcoming "Justified," after picking up a slew of paychecks in movies like "Life Free or Die Hard," "Hitman" and the upcoming "The Crazies."
I mentioned Bullock as the hero and Swearengen as the anti-hero, but "Deadwood" intentionally subverted the traditional black-hat/white-hat moral simplicity of the Western genre. No, this was not a Milch innovation. I require no convincing there. John Ford had been doing it back on "The Searchers" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." Howard Hawks did it on "Red River" and "Rio Bravo." And Clint Eastwood basically built his career on defining and redefining the conventions of the Western. But even an "Unforgiven" or something like Kevin Costner's underrated "Open Range" comes up short of capturing the murky morality that "Deadwood" trafficked in. That's the advantage of doing 36 hours, rather than two. Within 45 minutes, Swearengen and Bullock were mortal enemies, but as the series progressed, they were able to come together as allies and then split apart, depending on the new threats to life in Deadwood. It was telling that in Season Three, George Hearst, recognized by history as a titan of industry and a future Senator, would be presented as the ultimate villain.
On "Deadwood," America meant Statehood and Statehood meant restrictions and in the town of Deadwood, restrictions were met with only slightly more concern than evident signs of culture. In the series, we saw the idea of the free press in Deadwood (though Jones' A.W. Merrick), the idea of elections (Sanderson's work as E.B. Farnum ranks among my five favorite "Deadwood" performances) and even theater, with Cox's Langrishe arriving in town for the third season, one of several plotlines that never quite got the payoff it deserved. But the press and democracy and the arts were all greeted with distrust or skepticism.
Maybe it's appropriate that an anti-authoritarian show like "Deadwood" didn't get the sort of closure that The Man would try to tell you that TV shows need. Maybe we should relish its idiosyncratic resolution and stop pining for those TV movies that'll never come.
Even without them, "Deadwood" stands at No. 6 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade.
Coming up tomorrow? A likable killer, a man who serves two bosses and a fresh piney scent.