Wednesday, April 19, 2006

"Don't forget to kill Tim": Deadwood, Season 1

In re: the best-of-TV survey, I forgot to say that Rome IS eligible. Its second season just began filming today. And if you haven't voted yet, do so soon. I'm also extending the deadline to May 15, the better to make it correspond with the end of the TV season (and the better to get every ballot I can).

Anyway, I've talked before of my love for Deadwood. I think it's probably the best show on TV (though the race is very tight, I must say).

But it wasn't always that way.

One would expect me to like Deadwood, I suppose, considering it's the first show in ages to feature my home state as the setting. Plus, I love art that deals with themes of community, and Deadwood does so in spades. But when the show first came on, I felt a tug-of-war between myself and it that I couldn't resolve all through the first season. In the second season, I embraced the program wholeheartedly, but in the first, I was more hesitant.

Having worked back through the first season over the course of a couple of weeks on DVD, I now more fully understand what the show was going for, and I'm able to say that while the second season of Deadwood is better and more cohesive, the first season is some amazing television.

In the first season, creator David Milch and his writing team began with the story that made Deadwood a place of American myth: the murder of Wild Bill Hickock. Now, I would wager that most Americans have a passing familiarity with the story of how Jack McCall shot Hickock in the back, but most South Dakotans have this story burned into their brains. You can't grow up in that state without visiting the Black Hills, and you can't visit the Black Hills without learning the story of Hickock's end (and possibly seeing a production of The Trial of Jack McCall).

And that, I think, set me in my weird ambivalence towards the show in the first half of the first season. I knew all too well what was coming. While many might only have known that Hickock was going to die, I knew exactly what to expect from the storyline. And that made the first five or six episodes, at least the first time around, a near bore.

Don't get me wrong. I loved the acting and the gorgeous writing (which often falls into iambic pentameter). And the solid direction was a cut above TV standards. It was the plot itself that was dragging me down. I knew, as it were, TOO MUCH, like when you get spoiled for a show like 24, where the plot itself is almost the whole reason for the show to exist.

The second half of the season, when the Hickock storyline became only one of many stewing on the show's stove, allowed the show to grow on me. By the end of the season, I was highly anticipating a second season (and when it came along, I found my anticipation to be rewarded).

But watching the show once again, I find that everything holds together better for me now. Now, knowing too much is a GOOD thing, because I know the ULTIMATE plan for the season. In short, the Hickock stuff makes more sense as a prelude to the meat of the show, rather than a story arc in and of itself.

Deadwood is, in so many words, about the creation of society from nothing. When there's no one to dictate law to you, what sort of laws do you fall back on? The laws of God? The laws of common human nature? Or no laws at all? Deadwood asserts (in a somewhat bold notion for television) that we all have moral codes of our own, that even the worst of us have things we simply will not stand for. No one is all bad or all good. No one is without sin, but no one is without virtue either. This, of course, is just like life. But it's nothing like most television.

The Hickock stuff works as prelude in retrospect because it sets up a situation where the citizens of Deadwood begin to question just how much lawlessness they will stand for. Most of the people in Deadwood have moved there to get rich quick, to evade problems in other parts of the country or to live in a state that is close to anarchy (one can see this attitude reflected back at us in the contemporary Black Hills, where the prevailing sentiment about the government is that there should be as little of it as possible). But the murder of Hickock (and the later murder of two teenagers) represents a tipping point. The citizens begin to see the need for the trappings of society: a mayor, a council, a sheriff. With these things comes responsibility. With these things comes a government. In essence, you can live in fear for your life, or you can have gradually increasing government control over your life. It's the paradox of any free society, and no one has quite solved it yet.

Deadwood is also a show where the various characters seem to represent certain facets of the American public, though just when you think you've got what they represent pinned down, they flit off in a different direction. All of the characters represent many different things, which is the way it should be in any work of art that mixes realism with allegorical elements. The little girl Sophia works both as mute observer and as innocent corrupted by the big bad world. Al Swearengen works as politician, corrupting influence, moral conscience and Greek chorus. And Seth Bullock neatly encompasses both the need for law and the hypocrisy of it.

In short, Deadwood is a deep, deep work. I'm not sure I've yet gotten all the meaning out of it after two viewings. But instead of prattling on about themes and symbolism (which is surely boring you), I'll discuss the two things everyone mentions when discussing Deadwood: Ian McShane and the language.

One of the typical complaints leveled against Deadwood is that Timothy Olyphant (who plays Seth Bullock, the ostensible hero) is not half the actor that Ian McShane (who plays Al Swearengen, the ostensible "villain") is. This is somewhat true.

But Olyphant has a MUCH harder part to play. He has to struggle with himself, but usually land on the side of truth, justice and the American way. He's a fairly straight hero with a few personal issues. And the way the writers write him isn't one-tenth of the way they write Al Swearengen.

Simply put, Ian McShane has a lion of a role to rip in to. It's the kind of role that Milch writes so, so well. A largely amoral man who has a lot to say and says it in a deeply expressive manner. In any given episode, McShane gets to play the full gamut of emotions, while Olyphant gets to play one or two (generally frustration and/or righteous anger). Is this a weakness of the show that the characters are unbalanced thusly? I don't think so. I think it reflects Milch's somewhat cynical belief that when the chips are down, Bullock may not be the guy to turn to.

As for the language (Deadwood has easily the most profanity-laden dialogue on TV), I think it helps increase the verisimilitude of Milch's milieu. Profanity doesn't work for every show (it would feel out of place to have this much profanity on, say, Everwood), but for gritty realism, like the kind Milch traffics in, it works. In addition, Milch knows how to write a profane tirade and sort of make it sound like Shakespeare. While the language got many critics in a titter when the show debuted, I think that it has slowly become a part of the tapestry the show weaves.

To be perfectly honest, I could talk about Deadwood for hours on end. But that would be much too long of a blog entry. I'm going to be working my way through season two as HBO reruns it, and then I may do an episode-by-episode review of season three when it debuts this summer. We'll see.

Anyway, next up on the TV on DVD plate is Rescue Me, season one, which should be interesting.

Tomorrow: Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and American expressions of faith.

No comments: