“It can be Combative” – Deadwood (Retro Review)

Which was the best show of the Golden Age of TV? Wars have been fought over smaller questions, and while the critical consensus seems to have settled on The Wire and its unrelenting thematic focus, it is still easy to pick an argument about it a decade later.

It doesn’t help that there is a hazy boundary between when that Golden Age ended and our current era of peak TV began. Certainly it encompassed HBO’s holy trinity of The Sopranos, Deadwood and The Wire, bringing us up to 2008, but AMC then muddies the waters. How much of the runs of Mad Men and Breaking Bad count? The cut-off point could be pushed as far forward as 2015 with their help.

Not to let anyone down, but amidst all that confusion and quality a ‘best’ show is an impossible thing to name. What Deadwood might be is the most unique and experimental (although again, with that level of quality it depends on who you ask). Yes it is a western and does the expected job of reimagining the frontier, but it is primarily a show about a community, in a way that ties its western sensibilities to a practically soap operatic focus on its characters and their relationships. Nothing happens that hasn’t been caused by a character’s actions.

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Of course, actions are one thing but Deadwood is also famous for its language. The Wire’s dialogue also feels stylised, but that comes from a painstaking attempt to capture the feel of real Baltimore communities and institutions; Deadwood goes the opposite way and plays like particularly lyrical theatre, complete with soliloquies. It has the most beautiful phrasing in television – and in film for that matter – but grew equally famous for swearing on a level scarcely matched outside of The Thick of It.

Those duelling impulses, between lyrical beauty and visceral shock, point to the heart of Deadwood’s appeal. Creator David Milch poured in his high falutin ideas, but the show’s tightly plotted heart points to the his years learning the TV craft in NYPD Blue. It never forgot to be an engaging television show. What is most remarkable about Deadwood is that this carefully set up domino-effect plotting dovetails perfectly with its thematic goals.

That works because Deadwood is about humanity. It is about watching a place on the cusp of civilisation take those steps into the world we recognise today. That is clear on the larger scale – over the course of the three series that do exist, the eponymous town of Deadwood literally signs up to join the United States – but it is also made clear in the way each episode is plotted. Something happens, a character reacts as expected, and the chain reaction kicks up all kinds of issues across the town. The average Deadwood plot is an example of how the butterfly effect works in an enclosed community.

That is one reason why the show’s third series is so compulsively viewable. For two series the conflicting interests of heroes and antiheroes had been working as a plot engine, but in the third an outright villain strides into camp, knocks a hole in a wall to make himself a balcony, and watches the chaos he creates.

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The villain, a version of historical figure George Hearst turned into a furious walking metaphor for detached, unbridled capitalism, sets off events in the camp like never before, and he does it by threatening characters who have earned sympathy and affection over two prior series. On the thematic level, there is no way around it, Hearst is going to win. But his actions are all felt on the visceral level instead.

This works because of the writing, but largely because of the acting too. Ian McShane’s Al Swearingen, all fury and pure Machiavellian plotting, is rightly the character who will be remembered from Deadwood. But again and again the show produces high-concept ciphers who somehow turn into human beings through the complex storytelling and the hard work of the actors  Their lines are a mouthful, but the show’s warmly humanist heart needs them to deliver those lines like, well, humans, and again and again they succeed. Pairing Milch’s unique dialogue with a cast who reflect his view of an imperfect, lovable group of people give Deadwood everything it needs to work.

What it lacks of course is an ending – the one big negative for anyone’s argument that it could be the best show of TV’s Golden Age. But the show might find a way around even that, with HBO’s President entirely on board for a film, if a statement earlier this year is to be believed.

Even if that never comes to pass though, the final episode makes the camp’s ultimate future clear. You can visit the town of Deadwood today and see what became of it, or go to a hundred other American towns and take a look around; the Deadwood show’s job was to dramatise how humans reach that point, show the good, the bad, and the reasons behind progress, and in that it has already succeeded.

 

Created by: David Milch

Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Jim Beaver, W. Earl Brown, Dayton Callie, Kim Dickens, Brad Dourif, Anna Gunn

Prd: David Milch, Gregg Fienberg, Mark Tinker

Music: David Schwartz

Country: United States

Runtime: 55 minutes per episode

Year: 2004-2006