Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Deadwood - the Greatest Show Ever

I love the Sopranos. But Deadwood is just a perfect storm of greatness. I could write and write and write and write about my love for the show. But instead I'll point to two sources. One is this highly literate and cool chick's blog I found the other day. She regularly writes about the show, doing post-episode summary and commentaries. The other element is Tim Goodman's review of Season Three from a couple weeks ago, which I will quote from extensively here.
There's a reason why so many people are upset, on the eve of the third season of "Deadwood," that there won't be a proper fourth season because of monetary shenanigans, creative indulgences and twisted logic from HBO and the series' creator, David Milch. That reason: This series is one of a kind. Literally.

While it's true that "Deadwood" is a Western, a genre so worn thin and hallowed out through the years it hasn't been approached much in the modern world, Milch has risen up to take the form and infuse it with his cockeyed genius and he has created a landscape, characters and dialogue so thoroughly original that "Deadwood," when history has its say, may go down as one of television's greatest achievements -- a singular, original vision.

...

Now, "Deadwood" as a series is probably not something a new viewer can walk into come Sunday and make and heads or tails of it. This is Shakespeare in the mud, a labor-intensive aural pleasure that is gilded with excessive violence, an unholy amount of swearing and a lawless machismo that will send the faint of heart or the politically correct reeling. So, all others inclined to see what the fuss is about should immediately tape this season, then rent or buy Seasons 1 and 2.

Exactly. SAT time.
Deadwood : American television/cinema :: Shakespeare : the genre of theatre.

There truly is greatness in spades here, and dissecting "Deadwood" is as much a pleasure as watching it. But before partaking of what Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) would certainly consider unnecessary chatter, first the details of Season 3:

The law is coming to Deadwood. The town is about to hold its first elections and they are, of course, rife with backstage dealing, killing and fear. The dreaded George Hearst (Gerald McRaney -- in a role that certainly reverses a lot of recent network nonsense) is slowly putting the town under his thumb, leaving his imprint and causing no shortage of harm. But those who have been the bigger players in Deadwood, like Swearengen, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Cyrus Tolliver (Powers Boothe), aren't going down without a knife to the eye. But if last season was full of foreboding over Hearst's arrival, this season will be about managing his presence, along with the usual "Deadwood" storylines of whoring, booze, gambling, killing and, well, more whoring.

Deadwood inspires dissection because it is so wonderfully complex, so real, so vivid. The Sopranos is necessarily constrained by the restriction that the milieu is modern American life and we are all familiar with the constraints everyone is operating in. Deadwood, on the other hand, is order out of chaos. It is deliciously unpredictable. In The Sopranos, the ground rules are known. In fact, the mob genre works because it is one set of rules and codes (the mob's) working within and against the larger society's set of rules and codes.

Now, I am not dissing The Sopranos. On the contrary, I deeply love that series. But I am using it as counterpoint to emphasize the unique pallet Milch has to work with here.

Since we now know that Season 3 is the last, sans two hard-won but reluctantly accepted movies that will allegedly appear in the future, there's no getting around the sense of needing to write a fitting epitaph. And in the same moment explain, once again to those who doubt but remain curious and open, what's so special about this foul-mouthed Western.

At the forefront, it's the writing. Next, it's the acting and lastly it's the storytelling, which allows the other two to mesh. But an interesting thing happened to the writing in Season 1. It was odd, sure. Milch is odd. He's theatrical and smart and adorned with a fearlessness that allows him to show off his virtuosity without actually making you hate him for it. But in the beginning, everybody focused on the incessant swearing, which is like a machine gun volley of words that daily newspapers, this one included, hesitate to even judiciously shorten. Suffice it to say all the really bad ones are in "Deadwood" and they pile up on top of each other like corpses in a lawless, godforsaken town. If you can't get past that, go elsewhere.

Exactly. Deadwood is an acquired taste. I had trouble getting into it at first. I tried, then abandoned it about four episodes in. I just didn't believe I could emotionally invest in these characters. It didn't seem that interesting.

So what happened? Well, Season One passed without me finishing it. Then Season Two came along and I discovered the On Demand feature and found this transcript site, which is fantastic and indipensable. Because the language (not the swearing) is so unapologetically styled, the syntax often is hard to translate into real meaning in real time in order to keep up with the conversations. Unintelligent people need not apply as viewers. I'm both intelligent and well-read and trust me, it was not easy, though it does get easier once you both get into the rhythm and understand the characters much more deeply.

But what emerged, by midseason of that first year -- gaining confidence in later episodes and then blooming into magnificence last season -- was a Shakespearean grandness to the vocabulary that built on an ornate structure and was electrified by both humor and twisted logic. It got to the point last year that actually having a story arc for the season and various storylines in each episode was unnecessary (though they were present, handcrafted with precision). No, there was enough joy in just listening to the actors perform that a plot was like a forgotten present after a gift-ravaging Christmas morning.


A-goddamn-men. I wish I had written this. This is exactly how it felt watching Season Two. It is so... fucking... pleasurable. Seriously, read the above paragraph three or four times - it is one of the best ways of describing this show I've ever seen.

The dialogue alone proved there really was nothing else like "Deadwood" on television. But for Milch's vision to succeed, he needs actors to pull it off. That, too, sets "Deadwood" apart from a lot of other series. (HBO has a stable of shows where you can take the 15th most important character and find him or her to be richly nuanced and the actor responsible to be immensely talented). Take a look at this cast. W. Earl Brown as Dan Dority is wonderful. Dayton Callie as Charlie Utter -- excellent. Paula Malcomson as Trixie, Brad Dourif as Doc Cochran, Robin Weigert as Calamity Jane, William Sanderson as E.B. Farnum -- they are all incredible, and that's barely half the cast.

Another bullseye bit of commentary from Goodman. The thing about the 15th most important character being richly nuanced and the actor behind him or her to be incredibly talented - that is just right. It's a perfect storm of acting, probably because there is something so freeing in the language. These are characters living outside of civilization and freedom in expression is the ultimate expression of freedom. The acting is what makes the language come alive. As Goodman says, once you have genius writing and virtuoso acting, the script could be about a ham sandwich and it'd be riveting.

"Deadwood" is just littered with talent. Hell, you can make an argument that Olyphant or Boothe have the misfortune to be overshadowed by the fully earned and totally cashiered virtuosity of McShane. They're really great -- but he's from another planet entirely.

A different planet entirely. That is true. Boothe plays a smoothly evil villain and is brilliant. Olyphant is damn good. But McShane... McShane is miraculously good. Here you have an ensemble cast who are truly as good as any dramatic television cast (or even film cast), and when McShane comes on the screen, you can literally not take your eyes off him. At all times, in any scene he's in, the most pressing thing you want to know is: What is Al gonna do? He is just a relentless force of nature. Riveting. The human embodiment of free market capitalism. Relentlessly self-interested. Willing to kill one of the good guys if need be, fight to the near death, and then hours later effortlessly pivot into an alliance with the same guy because he passionlessly understands it's in his interest. It's only jarring to others. To Al, it makes beautiful sense. And you must understand Al to truly appreciate the show. Al is the soul of Deadwood and the soul of America. He has a wicked sense of humor, can even be merciful. For any actor to pull a character like this off would be a work of genius. And that's McShane's performance. Just the brightest work of genius in the masterwork that is Deadwood.

IMO, the show's episodes must each be watched several times. There are tons of little nuanced things that make more sense when you see the bigger picture. I have watched each episode of the first 27 anywhere from 3-5 times, and I still catch things.

Finally, a quick word about the story. Order out of chaos. Men who long for freedom from the law's constraints, seemingly by inexorable impulse must form an ordered society to protect what they've scraped out. The major story arc is about a mining camp's baby steps, its infighting, its urge to protect itself from outsiders who seek to swoop in and profit from and control it. Swearengen in particular is wonderful because he has that delicious ability to do non-linear thinking, to operate like one-part chessman, one part-mafia boss.

Some things have happened at the outset of Season Three that have set up a titanic struggle between the menacing, masterful Swearengen, and the 800-pound gorilla George Hearst, whose M.O. is to infiltrate and then dominate the rich mining camps of the American West. I don't know how it's going to shake out exactly. It is no foregone conclusion that Al will win - the forces against him are experienced, insanely rich, and incredibly powerful. Yet there's no way after witnessing Al operate for two seasons that you'd think he couldn't pull it off. The next nine weeks are going to be beautiful.

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