Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Living in Deadwood

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 said by Andy Sipowicz or Al Swearengen. To David Milch, dialogue just gets in the way of 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 the writing is the key. 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. An actor who has been knocking around in films and TV since the early 80's and whose most recent "claim to fame" was 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.

Equally important to Milch is that there are never "just" black and white characters. 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 televison 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, 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, and 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 by his moral fiber to bring law and order to this purgatory over which Swearengen rules. But, rather than enemies, he finds himself strangely allied with his moral antithesis in the quest for self rule. His morality is further challenged when, after doing the "right thing" and marrying his dead brother's wife and son, 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 but his sidekicks, Calamity Jane (Robin Weigart) and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) are still important pieces to Milch's web of human, well, calamity. The artistry with which Milch keeps the thickening strands of the Deadwood plotline 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 shit. 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 evil foil for next year? Will it be the arrival of Hurst, the 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, a.k.a. "the San Francisco cocksucker?" 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 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 scripts becoming collector's items 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" 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.

In my shrinking world aesthetic, in comparison, I will take Deadwood's "fantasy" over what euphemistically is called "reality television" every day of the year.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

When will we ever learn?

As reported by Reuters:

CHICAGO - May 11, 2005 - Arena Pharmaceuticals Inc. Wednesday said its experimental obesity drug was effective in helping patients lose weight in a 28-day, mid-stage trial. Patients taking a 15-milligram dose of Arena’s oral drug, known as APD356, lost an average of 2.9 pounds after 28 days of treatment, compared with a loss of 0.7 pounds by obese patients taking a placebo. Diet drugs have a checkered history, with few resulting in lasting weight loss. At the same time, doctors are eager for a safe and effective treatment for obesity, a major risk factor for conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. The San Diego-based biotechnology company said the results were highly statistically significant and that no serious side effects occurred.

There they go again! Yet another diet drug trumpeted in the press. The folks taking the drugs lost a whopping 2.9 pounds in 28 days and those taking the placebo only lost 0.7 pounds. Three pounds in twenty-eight days!! Four short weeks! WOW! Are you as underwhelmed as I am?

As this new miracle cure gets some ink, nudging up in the race to your drug store shelves with rimonabant (Acomplia), no one seems to get the big(ger) message. To whit: quit looking for healthy lifestyles in pill format! It just has not been invented nor is it likely to come out any time soon in a patch, topical gel, time-release, or enteric-coated gelcap. People, a pill is not the solution.

I won't even get into the whole "Fen-Phen" fiasco and how many hearts were damaged (and lives lost) by that ill-fated combination again. Nor will I get into another rant about how worthless and overpriced the most recent "diet drug" brought out for weight loss (sibutramine, Meridia) is. And don't get me started about the whole Relacort and CortiSlim green tea nonsense. But, for pity's sake, it is high time that the pharmaceutical industry climbed off this tired horse and started putting resources into something more important. Maybe, I don't know, just off the top of my head, perhaps - more thorough drug testing? With longer drug trials we will avoid the current travesty of bringing drugs to market with either insufficient testing or the ability to cover anything that is actually negative about the drug.

I am refering, of course, to the recent withdrawals of the COX II inhibitor class of antiarthritis drugs - Vioxx, Bextra, etc. With the rush to market and multimillion dollar rollouts of new prescription drugs, the pharmaceutical industry is, of coursem just doing what comes naturally. Profits over safety. But, that's just business. Even if I don't like it, I can understand it. Capitalism, the American Way, apple pie and all that. It's the "solution in a pill" metality, actively promoted by the drug industry, that I take issue with.

When will we, as the consumer, finally wake up to the truth? We are never going to have what we all dream of, namely, health by pill. Sure, there will be plenty of new, over-priced "cures for obesity" like this APD356 (Arena Pharmaceuticals). We should have Acomplia (Sanofi-Aventis, of France) - drum roll, please - next year. But with the best of the studies of Acomplia, patients lost 16 pounds on average over two years, compared with 5.5 pounds for those who took dummy pills. Now, by my calculations that is about 2.5 ounces per week over 2 years. Does this sound like a miracle to anyone? It certainly does not to me. For someone with 50 pounds to lose, that will "only" take slightly more than 3 years of Acomplia "therapy." Of course, on a cost per ounce basis, based souly on what I expect Acomplia to cost, it will probably work out to be about $5.00 per ounce of weight loss (calculation, purely hypothetical, are shown below). This is progress? I think not.

Somewhere in the reams of doctor and patient information that will be published in newspapers, magazine, professional journals, and by the crack team of Sanofi-Aventis representatives will be an asterisk which points to a discretely buried and barely readable subscript passgae at the bottom of every page. It will read, to the effect, that:

"Weight loss should only be expected to be accomplished in patients who follow a fat-restricted, reduced-calorie diet and participate in a regular program of moderately-vigorous aerobic exericse."

And there, my friends, will lie the real truth. There is no cure for inactivity, work and family demands on our time, meals in the car, on the run and out of a sack, Whoppers or 64 ounce Big Gulps, or reality television. There is no pill to cut down on dietary fat grams or sugar. There is no patch that will make you walk, jog, crawl, swim, or cycle for 30-60 minutes a day, 5 days a week. There is no time-release capsule that will reverse the "thrifty gene" passed on to you by your ancestors from hundreds of years of selection and stop your body from storing fat every chance it gets. And there has never been and will never be a drug that you put into your body that does not have side effects, some possibly lethal.

So, as we sit on our sofa or easy chair and watch the news and advertisements for the "next big thing" to lose weight while we sleep, remember this: where the rubber meets the road, there is only one thing that can improve your health - you. It is you - and you alone - that has the ultimate control of your health. How you choose to live, when all is said and done, is all we have. And the decision you have to make, despite the thousands of books and "experts" that tell you differently, is a simple one. You can choose to live as healthy a life as you can or not. You can swear off the absolute "garbage-as-food" sold out of drive-thru windows or not. You can park your car a half-mile farther from work and walk or not. You can take the stairs or the elevator. You can carry your golf clubs 18 holes or ride in a cart. You can break a sweat, raise your pulse and exercise or not. You can turn off American Idol, Survivor, The Great Race, The Newlyweds and Chasing Farah and all the other mindless dribble that passes for television, or not. When will the idiotic chatter of who's going to win a meaningless reality show change to "what I did to improve my health (or my mind or my family life or my profession or my hobby) last night?" Sadly, I answer myself, never. What type underwear Bo Bice wears or what Paris Hilton said was "hot" seemingly is the only thing on our minds these days.

I am not just talking about weight loss. I am talking about being as healthy as you can, in mind and body. About spending quality time with your children before it is too late. Learning something new - knowledge or a skill - that makes your mind expand beyond it's current boundaries. Discussing a real issue - like war, famine, genocide, the hereafter, your faith - with friends or family.

And, just on the off chance you might be interested to know, health does not come in a pill.
Calculations: Based on the best study published to date, patients taking Acomplia lost an average of 16 pounds over 2 years. There are 52 weeks per year and 104 weeks over two years. There are 16 ounces in a pound. So, 16 pounds is 256 ounces. 256 ounces over 104 weeks is 2.509 ounces per week. Thus, if we (very, very conservatively) estimate the cost of a months therapy of Acomplia is $100 per month and we have 50 pounds to lose, we will need a little over 3 years to lose 50 pounds with Acomplia. Three years of therapy at $1200 per year (12 months X $100 per month) to lose 800 ounces (50 pounds X 16 ounces per pound) works out to about $5.00 per ounce.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Death of Western Media

I apologize before I begin because I know, right off the bat, that this item is going to be much more of a rant than an entry in this web log. When you get to be my age, it's not very often than the blood pumps with the rapidity and velocity that enables the energy required to go off on a rant, but this, gentle reader, is such a time.

There is a clear distinction, at least in my personal classification scheme, between a rant and a BLOG. A BLOG is typically a measured, coherent, logical opinion or attempt to sway opinion in one direction or the other. A rant is often driven more by passion and enthusiasm rather than logic or an attempt to sway the reader opinion. Be it anger, sympathy, outrage, or understanding - the release of the passion is the entire point and is not always a display of proper logical discourse or valid arguments. The purpose of a rant is purgative as opposed to the usual BLOG which is to educate or give structure to an opinion. So, forewarned, this is - and with no apologies - a rant in the purest sense.

I am so tired of watching (actually, not watching) cotton candy news. But, when I thought more about it, I realized they are only giving us what they know the majority will watch. Junk food for the mind. JonBenet Ramsey, Susan Smith, Elizabeth Smart, Lori Hacking, Laci Petterson - tragedies all but, the fact that we seem to be fascinated by such individual misfortunes is becoming, sadly, a pathological national obssession. I understand that there are reasonable, studied and clear explanations for the human psyche's need to stop, crane out necks and view tragedy unfolding. The Passion plays of Christ's and, even earlier, the Greek tragedies of Plato make one cringe and want to turn away, even as it makes one yearn to look, to feast one's eyes, and to try to understand: for abhorrence and fascination go hand in hand. But, when watching train wrecks of the human condition becomes a national idée fixe we have, in my opinion, a significant reason to be concerned.

Caution: Now, for those keeping score, what preceded could be described as a legitimate BLOG; from this point on, I descend rather abruptly into the pit of an absolute, unfiltered, and an unapologetic rant.

Now, with the seemingly all-pervasive story of the "Runaway Bride," we reach a new depth of degradation and profligacy. We have become not merely a society hooked on junk food, we are a society fizated on "junk news." There is little nutritional value in either. We, apparently, sit thoroughly mesmerized by the inner workings of the disturbed mind of a 32 year old medical assistant and the hand-wringing office manager fiancé from the obscure town of Duluth, Georgia. We hear sound bite after sound bit from anyone and everyone, jockeying for position at the microphone, including restaurant waitresses, clergymen, firefighters, policemen, pop psychologists, wedding planners, marriage counselors, the local police chief, the district attorney, and a "family neighbor" who had a cousin who knew a bridesmaid for the Mason-Wilbanks wedding. I have a visual image of everyone in this sad little town queing up, as if waiting for the Judgement of St. Peter, to tell their pathetic and tenuous "first hand knowledge" about the rueful and piteous tale of these star-crossed lovers. I await the appearance of a pet psychologist interviewing the beloved family pet, Old Blue.

It is a sad commentary on the American mindset when people actually care about this issue while thousands are being butchered in Darfur without a peep of interest. We never saw this depth of analysis when the world stood idly by during the massacre of almost a million Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994. If you want racism, the "Hispanic male" slur aside, that is racism. We fixate on the "evolving human drama" of this histrionic ditz and turn away from the true tragedies of the world. Particularly, if these tragedies involve Africa.

I, unlike others, do not place the entire blame on the mass media. While CNN, Court TV and others have made this story the Greek tragedy that it is, these successful ventures obviously have their bottom line in mind. These media outlets sell advertisements to make money and they will cover the type of news stories that they know the American public will watch. And, by our watching, will see their advertising minutes. So, they air these tabloid items as news. They are inexpensive to cover, do not require any actual thought or analysis, and even the most junior broadcasters can be sent to armpit Georgia for the live interviews. The endless parade of smarmy "experts" (expert wedding planners, expert psychologists, expert waitresses, etc.) have their perpetual "Will work for airtime" signs around their necks. Airtime sells books and services so this pro bono discourse is a mutual exercise in back scratching. Further, it is no small coincidence that CNN's blow-by-blow, minute-by-tedious-minute telethon requires only a 28-mile hop, skip and jump from its Atlanta headquarters. For cost-efficiency, this particular emotional meltdown cannot be topped.

But, it is the viewing public that shoulders the bulk of the blame for this woeful cataclysm. Those fueling this wildfire, consuming the meager remnants of rational thought in America, actually watch these broadcasts and, loaded with their trivia, are ready for the water cooler the next day. "Did you know she bought the bus ticket a week before she ran off?" "Did you know that John Mason's father used to be mayor of Duluth?" "Did you know that Jennifer's eyes actually did pop out of her skull once?" It is just these sort of probing inquiries that are important to we, the people.

And, before my head turns a full 360 degrees on my neck and explodes, this parting prediction. The final nail in the coffin that is our culture is the fact that I clearly see the following unfolding, quite probably in the order presented, in view of my mind's eye:

1. Paid interview with some major interview host in prime time; Before the end of May, 2005, Dr. Phil will also rush tape a show on "premarital stress" and use the phrase "What were you thinking?"

2. Book deal for Wilbanks in 6 figures; smaller book deals for John Mason, Wilbanks' parents, Mason's parents, and Old Blue (ghost written by Hiraldo Rivera).

3. Made-for-TV movie - two actually, authorized and unauthorized - run on different channels at the same time. In prime time, of course; one-hour documentary on Court TV. Old Blue is interviewed but turned down as host of the new Animal Planet series, "Crazy Brides and their Crazy Pets."

She, and the "tragedy-struck family," will actually make money off this silliness. And, the next time a woman is missing, anywhere in the country, those in the search will always wonder "Did this woman just run off to hide?" and, more disturbingly, "Why am I out searching in the woods, anyway?" It is with that question that the true fallout from Jennifer Wilbanks affect us all.

If you want to know how low the media in the West has sunk, you need no more proof than this. But it speaks volumes, also, about our collective consciousness. As long as our culture displays even a modicum of interest in this sort of tabloid fluff, I am confident in predicting we will continue to have it fed to our eyes and our brains by the commercial media.

Nero may have fiddled while Rome burned, but we will be watching "Newlyweds II: Britanny and Kevin Federline" on MTV when this civilization falls.