Deadwood : Season 1 (2004) Created by David Milch
We don't have a TV. Not for a few years now. I think the rise of the home computer in recent history has fulfilled any of those TV needs in my mind. It generally means I pick up any TV series I'm interested in after it has aired, or revisit some past small screen glory. We've dipped our toes into Twin Peaks (about half way through watching the complete series), I have 1960's classic The Prisoner sitting unwatched on our shelves (future addiction to come). The first series I bought on DVD was the very much missed NYPD Blue. One of the last things we followed before the TV got the boot was NYPD Blue creator David Milch's Western series Deadwood. It's fair to say the lack of film reviews on this site the last few weeks has been down to our rapid, often feverish following of the developments in Deadwood.
It's hard for me to understand why Deadwood didn't meet with a larger audience when originally aired. Was it too violent, was the language too difficult? Was it too much for people to follow? Milch has created a world with many parallels with modern life in his story of the new gold mining town set up outside of any jurisdiction in the South Dakota of the late 1800's. It's possible that no TV series has featured the use of the word cocksucker more thoroughly. Yes the language is often course, but also poetic. I don't recall a TV series being this well scripted. It's in the details, but Deadwood really outshines most cinema for sheer quality in all aspects.
From Episode One in the first Season, Deadwood unleashes a series of intense stand-offs, be they of violent disposition or merely two talking heads trading transgressions. Humor is rich, characterization strong, setting and authentic feel for time and place spot-on and believable. This is a world to get lost in. Ian McShane heads a cast where there are no weak performances. McShane's Al Swearengen, saloon owner and general man to go to in Deadwood, is rich in put-downs, his filthy mutterings shocking and funny in turns. Swearengen is one of the great screen villains, the type that you somehow end up rooting for (though you know you shouldn't). For McShane, it's a long, long way from Lovejoy. If you missed Deadwood first time round, catch up now. You are missing out.
Deadwood is an incredible TV series. I remember watching it when we still had a TV set (before the days of digiboxes and ten million channels) and being impressed, but I must add I think I love it even more this time around. Like other HBO productions from the late 1990s onwards, Deadwood is raw, violent, unbearably (and infectiously) foul-mouthed, has lots of full-frontal nudity, sex, drugs and crime. Sounds like The Sopranos, but incidentally, Deadwood takes place in the late 19th century, a time when the USA was still under constant change, expansion and internal formation. In fact, Deadwood is a camp without law or recognition from the government. Describing this place and its daily life is a reminder of how new and fragile the Western concept of democracy really is.
The first season of Deadwood is an excellent social study. Especially with films, directors often get the credit for good cinema, but with Deadwood I want to stress how important good scripts are. Although the characters deliver any sentence with the maximum amount of the most abusive curse words, the beauty of the language they speak is not lost. I am glad to note that there is an effort to reflect the different accents and dialects of the characters depending on how long ago and from where they came to Deadwood and to America. Language matters greatly in the experience of belonging to a group or remaining outside. Funnily enough, curse words often act as the bridge between two people who do not share a common language otherwise. Language and the way we use it is crucial in the making of an identity.
I see acting as the main device through which the audience relates to a narrative in a TV series or a film. There are many juicy characters to play in the first season of Deadwood. The acting is on a high level throughout. Robin Weigert's butch Calamity Jane is a lovely and believable outlaw gunman and a drunk. Calamity Jane rebels and is increasingly lost and alone in her life, yet, she can do good to others. Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) has started the camp and gained an enormous amount of power and responsibility by scaring people with his murdering, drug-dealing, controlling and whatever else. Although the role is that of a maniac, Ian McShane manages to convey Al's hidden rightful and emotional side too, making it not so easy to just dismiss him as an awful tyrant. This is the genius of most of the characters here; good isn't only good and bad is not simply bad. Deadwood is good old-fashioned storytelling – it has the power to change the way you think.