Deadwood: Through a Glass Darkly

[This review includes spoilers for season one!]

I recently rented the first season DVD of Deadwood because it was highly recommend to me. Heavy drama is totally not my thing, and westerns are out of my realm, but after three episodes, I was hooked.

There's something so compelling and addictive about this show. It reminds me a lot of Lonesome Dove, but more so. Lonesome Dove aired a millennia ago and I don't even remember the basics of the plot, but I remember that it showed us in vivid detail how dirty, dark, short and brutal life actually was in the old West. Deadwood is like that. There's disease and death. There's exploitation of children. There's no law, no morality, and clearly, not enough soap.

Our leading man, Seth Bullock (played by the talented and may I say, extremely hot Timothy Olyphant) is in many ways your typical Gary Cooper western hero, morally upright, a man of honor. A former marshal from Montana, Bullock came to town to open a hardware store; despite his outspoken desire to avoid the job, Bullock's frustration with the lack of law and order grew throughout the first season, and he succumbed to the inevitable and became sheriff in the finale. Bullock is a married man who takes his vows seriously, and yet there he is, having a hot affair with the Widow Garrett, and it makes him more likable, not less. And he appears to be bonding with Swearengen, which I certainly didn't expect.

Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) is the character everyone is talking about. He was so utterly black in the first few episodes that I almost didn't even want to watch him. But as the first season progressed, Swearengen began to intrigue me. How can an outright murderer, drug dealer, pimp, and exploiter of women be so fascinating, and almost -- dare I say it -- likable? It's (of course) because of the bits of humanity and compassion we see in him. The way he killed the preacher, who was suffering so horribly, was outright tender. And we were given a strong hint (in a jarring scene where Swearengen is ranting to one of his prostitutes as she is servicing him) that Swearengen was prostituted himself as a child. It doesn't excuse him, but it certainly helps explain him.

All of the characters, good and evil, are so human, complex, fragile and fallible, ordinary people living in an extraordinary time and place. And they're played by exceptional actors, nearly all of whom deserve Emmys. I hate to single one out since they're all so good, but I have to mention the brilliant Brad Dourif as the town doctor. Tortured by his experiences tending to the wounded in the Civil War, the Doc is so emotionally scarred that he almost can't stand seeing people suffer. I loved the way he recruited the drunken (and also emotionally scarred) Calamity Jane to help him nurse people during the smallpox epidemic. During the final episodes of season one, Doc goes to great trouble to get a leg brace for the disabled woman (Geri Jewell) who cleans Swearengen's saloon; the scene in the finale where they danced together was just lovely.

A review of Deadwood wouldn't be complete without discussing the extreme profanity. There is so much of it that I doubt they'll ever be able to strip this series and show it on TNT. The profanity is all the more striking because of the accurately old-fashioned way that the characters speak. I found it off-putting at first, but after a few episodes, it just felt right. (One scene that I thought was hilarious was Swearengen and Mr. Wu, who spoke no English, discussing a drug theft using sign language, drawings, and a few obscene words.) Frankly, if extreme profanity bothers you, you may want to give Deadwood a miss; it's that bad.

But the writing in this series is exceptional. The final episode of season one where so much happened was television drama at its best. I cannot wait for the season two DVD to come out. I may even subscribe to HBO so that I can watch season three when it airs.

So I guess you could say that I highly recommend Deadwood. You think?

[postscript]

Is it me, or does Deadwood remind you of a twisted version of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman? I mean, think about it. We have a female lead who finds herself in circumstances where she must adopt an orphaned child. The male lead is the only truly moral man in town. The doctor is idealistic, the Peter Coyote character stood in for Custer, and Keith Carradine's Wild Bill did the Johnny Cash part. They had to form a "town council" at the end of season one. And aren't Swearengen and Trixie a more realistic version of Hank and Myra, with Sol Starr playing the Horace part?
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

1 comment:

Michael Colvin said...

Billie,

I have to say that I also just finished watching
Deadwood S1 on DVD and just fell in love with it. Lord
knows that it is not a fast-paced show, but there are
huge production values.

I think of the entire show as one big chess game, with
every episode having some integral and well though out
movement. I really love seeing both McSane and
Olyphant in their scenes together. They both have such
expressive faces.

This is one of the few shows that I watch and like
where dialogue plays almost a secondary role to the
rest. This is much more about casting and situations
than anything else. These characters say little but
powerful words.

Everyone has an agenda in Deadwood, and half the fun
of watching is seeing how the chess game will play
out.