the second best television show ever
Paul’s note: I received some very excellent presents this Christmas. As I have a chance to enjoy them more, you will be reading about things like this, this and some very cool items from here. Today, I review a gift from Scott and Julie: the HBO series Deadwood.
In 1868, the Fort Laramie Treaty granted the Sioux Nation “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” of the sacred Black Hills of Dakota. On the pretext of reconnaissance “to better control the Indians making...raids toward the south,” George Armstrong Custer led a military expedition of the Black Hills in 1874. As rumors suggested they would, Custer discovered gold in French Creek.
In 1875, while the US government tried unsuccessfully to secure mining rights from the Sioux, pioneers began arriving in the Black Hills in search of their fortune. Their presence was illegal, but following the start of war with the Sioux and the 1876 rout of General Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, no attempt was made to slow settlement. By 1877, the war was over, the Sioux had been relocated, and the Black Hills were annexed into the United States abrogating the Fort Laramie Treaty.
It is this context that creator David Milch chooses for Deadwood, the extraordinary HBO series that just completed its third and, most probably, last season. Milch, one of the very talented writers of Hill Street Blues and co-creator of NYPD Blue, had originally shopped a drama about police in the time of Nero. With Rome in development, HBO asked Milch to adjust the concept.
In 1876, Deadwood the city was lawless and part of no state or territory. It was a rough camp, averaging a murder a day, and it was filled with the most rugged of adventurers. Yet, economic opportunity forced the development of order and community, and it is this aspect that fascinates Milch.
At the center of Deadwood the series (wikipedia) is Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon. Like many characters in Deadwood, Al is an historical figure re-imagined with fictional depth and personality. Al is amoral (he runs his brothel ruthlessly and won’t hesitate to order a murder), but as the series progresses we learn that Al is also human. He is a deeply nuanced character perfectly played by the English Ian McShane.
As New Yorker reviewer Nancy Franklin suggests, the characters of Deadwood go beyond “the familiar cardboard cutouts” of the Old West to acquaint us “with the real forces and peoples that converged to form our country.” An aging Wild Bill is present (Keith Carradine) as is a multifaceted Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert). But, we also meet businessman Sol Star (John Hawkes), former marshal Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), Trixie the prostitute (Paula Malcomson) and a cast of 40 other brilliantly written and acted characters.
It is hard to identify the most noteworthy performances, but if pressed I’d mention William Sanderson as the peculiar E.B. Farnum, owner of the Grand Central Hotel; Keone Young as the non-English speaking Mr. Wu, a leader among the Chinese in camp; Jeffrey Jones as the too jovial A.W. Merrick, editor of the Deadwood Pioneer, Brad Dourif as the grumpy Doc Cochran, the camp’s physician; and, Powers Boothe as Cy Tolliver, the larger-than-life owner of the Gem’s upscale rival. Famous close-up illusionist Ricky Jay is also enjoyable as Eddie Sawyer, Tolliver’s right-hand man.
Milch loves colorful language. NYPD Blue brought “rhythm” and “tune-up” into our lexicon and terms like “asshole,” “dickhead” and “deadbeat scumbag” to prime time. (Ironically, the Parents Television Council has a longer list.) On HBO, Milch is unrestrained. Instances of f*** and c*** pepper most sentences, but so too does beautiful phrasing and an anachronistic style that demands your attention.
I’ve previously proclaimed that The Wire is the best television program I have ever seen. Having watched the 24 episodes of seasons 1 and 2 of Deadwood as quickly as possible I am confident that Deadwood is the second best. Despite the extreme profanity, the dialog is more rewarding in Deadwood and the relationships may be better developed. The Wire’s genius is the tightness of the story, and in this aspect is it unrivaled in television history.
Thanks to Emmanuel (who introduced me to The Wire) for recommending Deadwood and to Scott (who told us all about Primer and Arrested Development) for the gift of season 1.
Bonus link: a re-post of the New Yorker’s 2005 profile on David Milch