Monday, June 9, 2014

Deadwood, perspective and the ‘golden age’

Go onto any newspaper website (does anyone read the actual paper now?) and soon enough you will come across an article about this being a golden age for television. More and more articles started to appear around the time of the Breaking Bad finale. TV hipsters (like myself) will tell you that they were watching it years ago from season one. But people are wolfing down new TV shows like never before. And binge watching is the new 13 course tasting menu. Shovelled into you over a short period of time and declared the greatest thing straight away. It is TV reviewing as Mr. Creosote. The rise and influence of Netflix seems to have begun this loud conversation about binge watching and box sets with articles proclaiming new shows as the greatest since… Indeed there are as many articles about box sets as there are about the golden age of TV (in fact isn't this just a thinly veiled smart arse version of one?).

I would hope not. I want talk to talk specifics. The conversation is of savouring a show and letting it wash over you. Try it on over a time and see how it feels. When declaring greatness no one wants to miss out on being part of the proclamation. But like watching the new Nicolas Winding Refn film and declaring it one of the greatest films of all time, some distance and perspective is needed (not to mention common sense in that case). The headlong rush to declare True Detective one of the greatest TV shows of all time, a couple of episodes in, seemed ludicrous. ‘The best show since Breaking Bad’ people declared and there was that rush to get on board early lest you be seen to not 'get it'. But True Detective is not the greatest TV show of all time (in fact despite some great episodes it seems a little overrated and quite unsatisfying in the end). A few seasons and a few years down the line we may well be talking about the greatness of True Detective. But time is essential. Like the embarrassed film reviewers who gave the Star Wars prequels 5 stars, perspective is essential to judgment.

With this kind of perspective in mind it now seems like a perfect time to look at my favourite TV show of all time.  Recently the 10 year anniversary of the premiere of David Milch's Deadwood passed. A fancy (and fantastic) new 30 minute video essay by Matt Zoller Seitz accompanied this anniversary. And yet there was a feeling that Deadwood is a poor relation to the star athletes in HBOs cannon; The Wire and The Sopranos. Deadwood was a show that aired in the twilight of modern TVs first golden age (that phrase needs to go away actually). Look at just how good the TV shows that ran at that time were. Oz, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, The Shield and The Wire all started broadcasting between 1997 and 2004. All bar The Shield (FX) ran on HBO. There are, I am sure a lot of articles devoted to this period. Books too, Alan Sepinwall’s “The Revolution was Televised” is essential reading for a great overview. So the focus here is to look at just one show in that period, to big up that poor cousin which for my money is the greatest TV show that has ever been made: David Milch’s Deadwood. The prevailing wisdom seems to be thus: Deadwood ran for 3 all too brief seasons before ending in an unsatisfactory way. Talk of a resurrection appeared and appears every so often (a 4th season, 2 stand alone films) but this seems very unlikely now. Too much time has passed. There will always be love for this show (those who love it really do love it) but outside of the fans it has been given a grudging respect by people who have barely watched it. Indeed very few of my own friends have watched. I have spent the last few months essentially bullying them to do so.

In order to assess the qualities of Deadwood it is important to view it in the context of the TV landscape it was born into. Of the shows listed above, Deadwood was the last one out of the gate. Coming after the HBO hot streak just mentioned Deadwood was certainly a risk for the company. The western was not a particularly popular genre at the time. It had been over a decade since Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven had triumphed at the Oscars. Westerns since then had not been very successful at the box office (we are not counting the City Slickers films). But this was no ordinary show set in the west. David Milch who’d had a very successful career in television including co-creating the smash hit NYPD Blue wanted to do something different. And boy didn’t he just. Originally it was to be set in ancient Rome but HBO were already developing Rome at the time so he remarkably changed the setting and gave us Deadwood.

Deadwood tells the story of the town of Deadwood in the time just before and during the annexation of the land into the Dakota Territory in the 1870s. This was the story of the chaos of lawlessness being dragged into civility through money, mining and public greed. There was lawlessness in the town prior to annexation and the law was quite simplistic for people who cheated and threatened you: you shot them or they shot you. Annexation brought the government and what came then was government sanctioned crime: bribes, coercion etc. This was called progress but the wily people in the town know what it really means: a loss of the wildness and the frontier.

It would be quite easy to go through the plot synopsis of each season and point out the greatest hits moments to pull you into watching it. But it would also be quite dull. As a show Deadwood had its power in the space in between such moments. It is in the smallest of interactions between seemingly minor characters. In imagined slights for characters like E.B. Farnham (the brilliant William Sanderson) and his lonely rage filled reactions to these slights. It is in its use of language, both guttural and poetic, in the characters both big and small and in the sheer audaciousness of the whole enterprise. The editing and rhythm of the show reminds me quite a bit of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. In that film (an absolute classic by the way) the editing and the arc of the story seems to be based on the movements of the character Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) This gives the narrative a woozy, off kilter feeling that, if you fall in with it, makes the film poetic and wonderful. In Deadwood season one there is a fairly straight forward arc that is successful at bringing all the narrative points to a successful conclusion. Although it is still not what you would call conventional. For season two and three Milch essentially abandons this and lets the characters guide the narrative. It makes for less conventional storytelling but it is also far richer and more rewarding. To continue the Paul Thomas Anderson feeling it is interesting to note that the character of George Hearst (Gerald Mc Raney, chilling) bears more than a passing resemblance to Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood. I have no knowledge of whether Anderson has seen or indeed is a fan of Deadwood but the idea pleases me that he may have been influenced a little bit by it.

Some of the best moments in Deadwood take place during long scenes where nothing seems to be happening. But below the surface the tension can be palpable. Witness the first scene of the prostitute Joanie Stubbs (the brilliant Kim Dickins) with the psychotic Frances Wolcott (Gareth Dillahunt). It plays long and it plays still and it builds up terrifying tension that is only released by the relief of nothing happening. But it tells us two important things: there is trouble ahead for any woman that happens upon Wolcott and that Joanie Stubbs is a deeply troubled woman who may not hold the idea of staying alive as a priority. This is the brilliance of Deadwood in a nutshell: it shows us not tells us. Compare it to something like current ratings darling The Walking Dead. That shows has almost zero characterisation and its dialogue consists of about 90% exposition. Milch, like the brilliant David Simon is a craftsman. Their shows are populated with great writers and directors who know when dialogue is needed and not needed. This may seem obvious and easy but it is not. Watch any show on TV and you will notice just how much exposition is about. Indeed Deadwood the town is more of a character than a lot of characters are in some other TV shows.

One of the main accusations levelled at a lot of TV shows at the moment is the amount of violence against women be it sexual or otherwise. Rape has become shorthand in some cases for character development. Deadwood treats everyone equal - victim and offender. There are no rapes in the show. There are plenty of prostitutes and some are on the receiving end of violence but both men and women are in this town. There are some classic uses of what is now generally called sexposition but unusually compared to many TV shows there are quite a few strong female parts. Four of the strongest characters are women (seems low until you compare it to other shows).

There is Trixie (Paula Malcolmson) who, at the beginning of the show, is a prostitute. But she changes and grows throughout the show. Crucially she is defined as character through actions, thoughts and deeds, not through sitting down crying and revealing her sad past. And there is a sad past, hinted at but not brought to the fore. She becomes stronger as the show moves on, more confident in controlling her own future, fearless and funny and effortlessly holds men in her thrall. She suffers no fools and sees all the angles. Alma Garrett (Molly Parker), who represents society in the show, is the wife of a prospector who is swindled and then killed early on in the show. Seen first with a dangerous addiction to Laudanum she overcomes this to become one of the strongest citizens in the camp, guaranteeing the opening of the first bank from the money she earns from her gold claim. The most danger to her stability is the unspoken love between her and Sheriff Bullock (a perpetually rage filled Timothy Olyphant). This stability is tested throughout the three seasons.

We also have Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens): a prostitute who arrives with Cy Tolliver to open the Bella Union directly across the street from the Gem Saloon. But this isn’t the classic prostitute who just wants to be loved story. This is the story of familial heartbreak and destruction, the pain of a previous life still burning brightly. She cuts both a tragic and glamorous figure, always beautifully turned out but rarely with a genuine smile. There is so much loss here and Dickens plays it with remarkable subtlety. Last but not least we have ‘Calamity’ Jane Cannery (the extraordinary Robin Weigart) who arrives in Deadwood with Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine). After he is killed, she stays in Deadwood. A drunk, with bravado and a line in coarse phraseology that would shame a sailor, Jane wanders about the town talking to herself and shouting at anyone who looks at her funny. But there is softness underneath, and we see it played out with Sophia, a child initially rescued from a family thought slaughtered by Indians. It turns out the truth of it is quite different.

These four women are as strong and as forceful as any character in the show. They are not victimised for cheap shock value and they are fierce enough to survive independently in a frontier town. And that is the key to them. They are independent. Not married or beholden to men in any way (the exception being Mrs. Garret who is briefly married at the start of the show). They are amongst the best characters in the show with Jane and her beautiful and abrasive use of language a particular favourite of mine.  

But no talk of favourite characters can be had without discussion of the man who becomes the central character of the story, Al Swearengen (Ian Mc Shane). The owner of the Gem Saloon, he is a man who is always on his toes, thinking two moves ahead of the rest of the town. The character is brought to glorious life by dialogue that crackles and a performance from Mc Shane that surely ranks as one of TV’s greatest. Whether he is essentially performing a soliloquy (talking to himself but so Shakespearian) or in conversation with his loyal employees Dan or Johnny (or his Indian head) he is the man that is in charge. There is harshness, violence, drunkenness and also great sadness in the performance. We learn very little about his background save a few bits of information that slips out. His tenderness with the Reverend Smith is one of the great TV moments, beautiful and deeply moving in its way. He is the town of Deadwood’s guardian and protector; its chief watcher, at home there like he has never been anywhere. He is a man born to be on the frontier, yet smart enough to know when the winds of change are sweeping through. In some ways it is hard to do him justice as a character on the page such is the embodiment Mc Shane brings to the role. The initial thought on seeing Swearengen is this: is that Lovejoy? By the end of three seasons you will never see him as Lovejoy again.

The benchmark of a great TV show for me is in its secondary characters. If they are well written, well cast and numerous you are generally onto a winner. And Deadwood has characters in spades. Far too many to list here but the fun is in seeing them yourself. There is the doc (Brad Dourif) who is grumpy and magnificent, the previously mentioned Reverend Smith (Ray McKinnon, himself the creator of the superb Rectify). There is the brilliant triple act of Dan, Johnny and Adams in the Gem saloon, all rivals to sit at the knee of Swearengen.  In the Bella Union Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) and Eddie Sawyer (Ricky Jay) have a friendship best described as frosty. We haven’t even mentioned the brilliant Jewel Caulfield (Geri Jewell). She has some great lines based around peaches and cinnamon. There are so many great parts, so many great character actors in those roles. Watched a second and third time these characters keep adding layers and shading to what is already a brilliant and complex show. I am already looking forward to watching it again to see what other remarkable things are going on that I may have missed. I have only briefly mentioned George Hearst who takes up the majority of season 3. It is a character arc that is best to discover yourself.  

Deadwood is a show that, to use a cliché, you will get out of it what you put in. There are no obvious set pieces and beats that you would call standard. There is an arc to each season but it meanders slowly towards the conclusion. It is not really a straight arrow kind of show. And it is all the better for it. I have barely scratched the surface here, there is so much more to discover. Watch it and weep those silent tears that a 4th or 5th season does not, or will not ever, exist. In a time when a show like Dexter gets 8 seasons, this is a profoundly sad realisation. But like that other great and stunted show, Treme, torn away from us all too soon, we loyal fans will be forever grateful that something this wonderful and original ever got made at all. And that is the true golden age for me. 

1 comment:

  1. Great appreciation of a great show. (For me, the greatest, as well.)

    I've thought so much about why it never got the broader recognition that the other great HBO shows of that moment got, and I always come back to the same answer: First time through it takes real effort to follow, follow the plot, follow the dialogue. Some are quicker than others at this, but very few are going to pick it up as quickly as those other shows. Not that they were simple or simplistic. Hardly. But Milch wins for difficulty. Obviously, for the (relatively) few who put the time and attention in, it's beyond worth it, beyond in a way that, for us undying lovers of Deadwood, is unsurpassed.

    But I can't say I don't understand those who won't or are unable to put the effort in. I'd have been one of them if it were not for...something that told me to keep going and an attachment that formed almost immediately despite the not small frustration of often not knowing what the hell was going on or being said. Yes, it's true, the richness I've found since that first pass appears to be infinite. I am, right now, watching for an eleventh time (yes) and still I see new things, find connections I hadn't before, and love those characters even more.

    But I am a slow study; I could easily have been among those who never watched or gave up quickly. It was a confluence of unusual circumstances that got me to even try watching in the first place.

    Happily, with the easiness now of watching film and tv, there's no real end to the number of people who will eventually discover Deadwood, and we really don't know if it will remain the "poor relation."