Thursday, September 10, 2015

The First Five of "Deadwood"

I don't have it in me to keep watching "Deadwood."  It took quite a bit of effort to get through these first five episodes, and there's no way I'm getting through thirty-one more in a hurry.  Perhaps I've heard too much praise for HBO's acclaimed 2004 western, too much hyping of Ian McShane's career-making turn as the villainous Al Swearengen.  Perhaps I'm just not in the mood for something this gleefully crude and venal and nasty right now.  Whatever the reason, "Deadwood" was a disappointment in too many respects.  I respect the hell out of the show for what it is, but I'm done with it for the foreseeable future.

The year is 1876, and the gold-mining encampment of Deadwood, located in what has yet to be established as South Dakota, attracts the best and the worst of the era.  The Gem Saloon and brothel is owned by Al Swearengen (McShane), who has a hand in every kind of con and grift and vice operation in the area, and most of the legitimate business too.  He rents a plot of land to the newly arrived ex-lawman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Sol Star (John Hawkes), who intend to open a hardware store but get caught up in the local politics.  Swearengen and hotel owner E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) are also key figures in the sale of a questionable claim to gold-seeking gent Brom Garrett (Timothy Omundson), whose wife Alma (Molly Parker) is a laudanum addict.  Finally, there's great excitement at the arrival of an aging Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), accompanied by Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert).

The goal of the series is to present a more candid, true-to-life, and true-in spirit account of how life was lived in the Old West than the prettied-up romanticized version we've been presented with in westerns so often.  And so Al Swearengen beats up one of his prostitutes and uses the f-word 43 times in the pilot episode alone, despite the f-word being an anachronism.  And Calamity Jane is a violent alcoholic "sewer mouth," and yet still one of the most sympathetic miscreants in the cast.  The town of Deadwood is suitably muddy and inhospitable, populated by grime-caked extras.  Deadwood is a real place and most of the characters like Swearengen and Bullock were real people, so there's plenty of history informing the events of the show.  However, the creators definitely took artistic liberties in order to emphasize the lawlessness and cutthroat nature of how they lived.

McShane gives the most memorable performance, and it's not hard to see how Al Swearengen became "Deadwood's" headliner, often held up as one of the best anti-heroes of the current television golden age.  He's the 1870s version of a mob boss, who becomes a stabilizing force almost in spite of himself because chaos is bad for business.  McShane dominates every scene he's in and sets the standard for everyone else in the cast.  I also enjoy Olyphant, a man who was clearly born to star in westerns, and Brad Dourif as the local physician, Doc Cochran.  The scope of "Deadwood" is wide enough to support a big community of interesting characters, who are given plenty of opportunity to distinguish themselves.  It helps that the show was willing to push the content boundaries and adopt a very modern attitude toward its subject matter.

However, "Deadwood" somehow also feels terribly old fashioned and I'm afraid it hasn't aged well.  I was immediately put off by the dingy cinematography and by the barrage of profanity and violence.  It feels like it was trying too hard to shock and awe - and after ten years where harder adult content has become the norm, the approach seems positively juvenile.  At the same time the basic structure of the show is very reminiscent of the soapy TV westerns of my youth, like "Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman" and "The Young Riders."  The languid opening sequence with the running horse is positively retro.  Maybe it's the lingering effects of watching too many bad shows in the past, but I really have no interest following the "Deadwood" characters on this familiar path toward lawful Statehood and civilization again.

In short, my disinterest in "Deadwood" is mostly due to my own preferences and viewing history.  I certainly understand why it's earned such a loyal contingent of fans, and I'm glad that they may finally be getting the ending for the show they've waited on for so long.  In a couple of years I may be in the mood to revisit and finish it.  Maybe if my viewing queue weren't so overstuffed with more appealing options, I'd have more patience.  But as it stands now, I've seen enough "Deadwood."

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