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00622 - DEADWOOD

Movie-Hype00622 - Deadwood

Television is a more intimate art than movies. We watch it in our homes, snuggled up on the couch, lights off, maybe even in our underwear. Okay; that last part is just me, but you get the idea. There’s a familiarity we have with our favorite TV characters that goes beyond anything a play, movie or even a book can bring to the table. And television, whether 13 or 22 episodes in a season, comes to us over time. Sometimes there are repeats or Sweeps Stunts, and we lose the thread of what’s going on.

Enter TV on DVD. What’s so fantastic about TV on DVD is that you can watch several episodes (or every episode) in one shot. Viewing it this way, you begin to see how the narrative flow was set up, and plot developments make more sense. Even more so is the character development, both intended by the writers, and also just the physical and emotional maturation an actor has growing into the role.

Perhaps the best part: there are NEVER any commercials. When I had my FIREFLY marathon with Grendel a few weeks ago it never got old to say “We’ll be right back….RIGHT NOW!” every time the show was obviously meant for commercial break. Zipping through comedies in 21 minutes or dramas in 42 is hella-sweet, and makes you feel like you’re saving time, and should therefore watch another show! (Kinda like the wife who came home with a new hat and her husband asked how she could afford it and she said, ‘It was $100 marked down to $50, so I bought it with the $50 I saved!’)

Without realizing it I started a trend by pushing FIREFLY. I realize now I need to do this more. So, I’m folding into MovieHype reviews of Television shows. The best part about this is that while I tend to review all sorts of movies I come across—both good and bad—I will only review a TV show if I think a significant portion of my audience should watch and/or own the series. That way, you know it’s something good, and since my judgment is better than yours you can rely on my recommendation. Okay, on with the show.

00622 – DEADWOOD

Ajax—a good friend to the Hyperion Institute—came to me with the first two seasons of DEADWOOD. I was insanely busy, but he looked at me with those puppy dog eyes, and how could I say no? So, I somehow found time to bang out 2 seasons—24 episodes—of DEADWOOD.

Having now seen the show, several question come to mind. They are:

A) How much of the show is authentic history?

B) Did they really talk like that?

C) Is there a greater “opening credits” in TV history?

D) Was the only job for a woman in the Old West one of “ill repute”?

E) Would I have given Best Actor to Ian McShane over Kiefer Sutherland (24) or even Hugh Laurie (HOUSE)?

F) Seriously: did they really talk like that? (part 2)

G) Finally, is DEADWOOD the greatest show ever, at least through the first two seasons?

A) How much of the show is authentic history?

DEADWOOD was a real place, in the Dakota Territory, and there was a real gold rush there. Many of the characters and even some of the plot points are real too. On the other hand, DEADWOOD is a television show, and doesn’t claim to be otherwise. So they compressed events or added them as need be. Though I wasn’t there, I think they got the tone and timber of the times dead on. My guess: except for a couple of you, your knowledge of the Old West is such that whatever factual errors are there shouldn’t impede your enjoyment of the show.

B) Did they really talk like that?

Here I refer to the swearing. In fact, more foul language than you’ve ever heard on a TV show, in all of human history. Ever. At first, you’ll be a little shocked. By Episode 6, you won’t notice. By Episode 12 you’ll be talking that way, and by Episode 20 your mom will be. More to the point: The Old West was often a wild and wooly place, something we rarely (read: never) see depicted accurately in movies. The language was very foul, although often used as adjectives and not even considered swearing (like a sailor or Teamster might). Did they swear as much and say the words DEADWOOD suggests? I’m not sure. Words that we don’t get too upset about today (like damn and bitch) were very offensive back then. What I think they did is take today’s worst words and have the residents of Deadwood use them, to get the point across how foul people spoke. It is a controversial aspect to the show, but remember: DEADWOOD was originally on HBO, which means plenty of language, violence, nudity and sexual situations (or what I like to call the Holy Quatrony). I think most open-minded adults can handle this, but you’d be a fool if you let your kids watch it. Or your mom.

C) Is there a greater “opening credits” in TV history?

Simply put, no. Oh, there has been better music, more moving pictures, but no credits that I know of have ever shown a woman getting into a bathtub, including what Peter Griffin would call “Side Boobage.” (We’re talking very large Side Boobage too, from a breast so large that it likely draws other smaller boobs to orbit around it.) Sadly, I’ve yet to see this cast member naked in the actual show.

D) Was there any other job back then for women but whoring?

Apparently not. As the show progresses, we get a teacher and presumably as the town becomes legit they’ll be more. But remember: Deadwood existed illegally on Indian Territory. There was no law, no government. People who went there were risk takers. It was a hard life that existed out there. It’s fairly realistic under those circumstances how things play out.

E) Would you have given Best Actor to Ian McShane over Kiefer Sutherland or Hugh Laurie?

Let’s put it this way: I wouldn’t have complained. (As it happens, the winner was actually James Spader for BOSTON LEGAL, but since that is so horrific an event Hyperion just pretends that miscarriage of justice never happened.) When the Emmy nominations were announced, I was trying to decide between Kiefer Sutherland for 24 and Hugh Laurie for HOUSE, giving my vote to Laurie. I heard then from respected TV Critic Matt Roush that Ian McShane deserved the award just as much, and I can’t disagree. On a larger scale, I make this declarative statement: DEADWOOD is as well acted as any show in history. When you think of well acted shows (at least the first two seasons, to give us a fair basis of comparison), in comedy you have DICK VAN DYKE, MASH, CHEERS and FRASIER (SEINFELD didn’t find their comedic footing until Season 3.) For dramas you have NYPD BLUE, ER, THE WEST WING, LAW & ORDER, THE SHIELD and probably the best of the bunch, THE SOPRANOS. DEADWOOD is right there with THE SOPRANOS.

F) Seriously: did they REALLY talk like that? (part 2)

This time we’re talking about the stilted sometimes formal speech, and the word usage. It is true that in an odd counterpoint to the uniform vulgarity of the times there was a genteel courtesy often displayed, especially between men and women of standing. DEADWOOD takes it 6 steps further and gives us….Western Shakespeare. I’m not kidding. If you pay attention, you can often catch the speech rhythms in Iambic Pentameter. Add to that the soliloquies, turns of phrase and high-fallutin’ words, and I don’t think there’s any doubt Shakespeare could have written this and would have approved. (Remember: the bard had lots of vulgarity in his plays, but the culture has changed so that we don’t recognize it today.)

G) Is DEADWOOD the greatest show of all time through the first two seasons?)

In my opinion, no, but DEADWOOD is good enough that it needs to be included in the conversation. Personally, I would put DEADWOOD slightly below a few (very few) other shows because of narrative cohesion. However, DEADWOOD is as well acted and well written as any show in history.

If you are a fan of long-form television, able to handle the subject matter, you have no choice but to watch it. Would you have gone to the Festival of Dionysus to see OEDIPUS THE KING? Taken your place at the Globe Theatre for HAMLET? Would you have lined up at the local Odeon to see CASABLANCA? Then you need to do the same here.

SEASON THREE UPDATE (Written June 25, 2007)

I sit here having recently finished the third and final season of Deadwood in simple unadulterated awe. Everything I said about the first two seasons is redoubled for the richly dark final bow. (Word has it that two two-hour HBO movies will air this year to tie up loose ends, but the series we love curls to an end.)

Part of me is frustrated: they had so many more stories to tell! However, most of me is simply grateful that I got to experience one of the greatest television shows in history. Over the last 6 weeks my dad and I worked our way through the series (second time through the first two seasons for me; the third season started the day it came out on video, both of us chomping at the bit). This settles one thing in my mind: unless you're a pansy you can handle the language and violence. My father—my pastor father, pillar of the community, as godly and moral and temperamentally conservative as they come—my father got into Deadwood. You have no excuse. The trick—if you're trying to persuade someone who has a problem with the language or if you're one of those hypocrites yourself—is to understand how rough and dangerous it was back then. In the Season 1 Episode 1 Commentary Deadwood Creator David Milch explains how he wanted the viewer to feel almost assaulted by the language (42 F Words in the opening episode and a series-long 1.56 F-word/minute ratio) to better empathize with the truly perilous situation the characters found themselves in. If that's not a great excuse for swearing I don't know what is. (Like I wrote two years ago: you WILL get over the language and come to not even notice. Don't let that keep you from one of the five greatest shows in history.)

The third season threw us headlong into the politics of Deadwood becoming a town, and all I can say is that Gerald McRaney is the god of my idolatry. (This Shakespeare reference is more than appropriate, as one thing I forgot to mention in the preceding paragraph is that aside from all the swearing the most incredible thing about Deadwood is how Shakespearian the language is. Okay, I'll stop proselytizing now.) Back to Gerald: who'd have thunk Major Dad would turn into one of the all time greatest characters alive? I always knew McRaney more for being the affable Major and not working it out with Delta Burke (as Chief Wiggum whined, "But they seemed so happy!"), but McRaney's George Hearst is one of the scariest characters in television history. I know I use that comparison often when talking about Deadwood, but you just have to see him! As much as we love Swearengen (top ten TV character of all time; ranks up there with Tony Soprano), and as much as we loved every minute of Calamity Jane (Top Ten for Female characters; all time), and all our other favorites (including Richardson; who didn't love that guy?), my dad and I spent every recap session gushing about McRaney. His Hearst was so frightening that at times I found myself hiding underneath the pillow!

Oh, I could go on for months and not get tired of talking about Deadwood, but I know you're getting tired of the rah-rah, so I'll close with this: if you're a fan of Deadwood I can't figure out why you haven't devoured the third season yet. (And how about that fight between Dan and the Captain; best televised fight ever; way better than Tony and Bobby Bacala.) For those of you who haven't tried Deadwood yet, do me a favor: rent the first disc. Episodes 1 and 2 are on it, but really it's one long episode broken up into two parts. Watch those two, and then tell me what you think. If you're not honestly hooked by then I will personally pay for your rental and gas money to the video store (and a candy bar on the way home).

But I know I won't have to pay, because Deadwood is just that good.


Elsa said...

Now I must start by stating that I have only watched a few episodes and most of them were in bits and pieces.

From what I have seen the plot and story line really pull you into the characters and their lives. You have to imagine that it was not the easiest of times. Most women were either house wives, school marms or prostitutes. There is no real form of law, only ones that can be bought or manipulated.

They do make you wonder how much they are taking from actual history and how much they are taking creative writing. They have brought to life some of history's favorite's for example Wild Bill and Calamity Jane.

I must admit that the foul language did turn my interest from the show. The language can be quite offensive but I can see where the potential attraction can be for some people.

Dragon said...

love the new look!