July 11, 2005TV ON DVD
Deadwood Season 1
In 1876, a Montana marshal gives up his badge and makes his way to a lawless frontier town, hoping to leave his life of violence behind him. It sounds like the setup for a typical western, and at first the HBO series Deadwood seems to be just that (only with more swearing), but over the course of its 12-episode first season, Deadwood takes overly-familiar Western narrative conventions and invigorates them thoroughly.
Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) wants nothing more than to start a hardware store with his partner, Sol Star (John Hawkes), and earn enough money to send for his wife and child. However, when faced with the open-faced amorality of Deadwood, embodied in town despot Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), he finds he may not be able to deny his innate sense of justice.
Completing HBO's hat trick of morally ambiguous dramas (along with The Sopranos and The Wire), Deadwood is the brainchild of NYPD Blue creator David Milch, whose end goal, according to his commentary on the pilot episode, is to depict "society trying to find its organizing principals in the absence of law." Originally, Milch pitched a series centered on ancient Rome, but when informed that HBO had a similar series in the pipe (Rome premieres later this year), he turned his attention to the American West. He was fascinated with Deadwood, he notes on his commentary, as an "accelerated version of the whole American experience," noting that "In April of '76 there was nothing, and by December of '77 there were phones."
Deadwood has the same leisurely pacing as The Wire, but lacks that series' focus, resulting in a few episodes that meander without much drive. An early plague subplot is particularly limp. The series picks up as it progresses, when the camp's possible annexation results in a temporary government being set-up and overseen by Swearengen, with positions doled out on a volunteer basis. Sanderson gets lots of comic mileage out of becoming Deadwood's first mayor, a position he believes will finally deliver the respect he feels he deserves. Meanwhile, Swearengen and Bullock find they might have more common ground than they originally thought.
|Milch defends the profanity in his commentary, citing that it is not only historically accurate, but noting that the swearing "begins to establish [the] lawless atmosphere emotionally." If you feel the constant profanity on Deadwood to be a slap in the face, well, that seems to be the point.|
None of the writing would work, however, without the performances to back it up, and Deadwood's cast succeeds admirably. Weigert's Calamity Jane and Dourif's Doc Cochran are particular standouts (both performers were nominated for Emmys last year), and Olyphant plays Bullock as a quick-tempered, stone-faced man whose heart seems to be in the right place, though he may not always be likeable. The anchor of the show, though, is McShane as Al Swearengen, who minute by minute, episode by episode, is revealed to be the show's true center. This is particularly clear in the remarkable episode "Mr. Wu," which depicts the lengths Swearengen must go to maintain his power in the camp as well as the humanity underneath his menacing faade. McShane picked up a Best Actor Golden Globe last year for his work, but was snubbed by the Emmys. If he's not recognized with at least a nomination this year, there truly is no justice. In McShane's hands, Swearengen is the most nuanced criminal overlord since, well, Tony Soprano.
The DVD set boasts a few extras, including commentaries by Milch and most of the primary cast, as well as a short feature about the real town of Deadwood. Milch's commentary is sparse, but his few comments are enlivened by his understated wit. When Parker's character prepares to take her laudanum, Milch notes "She's a junkie. I really respect that in a person." The packaging is ridiculously ostentatious, with an oversized box that's guaranteed to sit awkwardly on any normal DVD shelf. Despite this, it's still a DVD set that should have a place on your shelf, right next to the rest of HBO's exemplary programming.
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