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.


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