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Deadwood
By Ron Steinman

“Deadwood” may be the only show on TV that is true, despite taking place more than one hundred years ago. Because it is so real, it is a remarkable feat of the imagination. Almost every other Western film, old or new, or as series TV, is weak and unusually clean, dirt free, predictable and without substance. The only narrative film in recent years that is equal to “Deadwood” is Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” a powerful and demanding film that demythologizes the Western film as genre and often-weak entertainment. Even the great John Ford Western’s never kicked up as much dust, dirt and goop as we see in the streets and saloons of Deadwood. As many who are my age, I grew up an unabashed fan of Western films. These included not only the ones John Wayne starred in, but also the Saturday morning serials in the Kent Theater a few blocks from where I lived in Brooklyn. Until “Deadwood” came along, despite “Lonesome Dove,” I thought the Hollywood Western was all but dead. Many reviewers thought highly of “Lonesome Trail,” the recent mini-series on TV staring Robert Duval, as usual, but it is weak by comparison with “Deadwood” and far weaker than “Lonesome Dove.”

“Deadwood” is not to everyone’s taste. If so, the ratings would be higher and it would have had a long life on HBO. As of now, one short season remains of two two-hour films. Then, reruns.

History about life west of the Mississippi in the 19th Century is a mix of frontier newspapers, myths, diaries and letters. All else is guesswork. Who is to say that David Milch, the series creator and his staff is right about life in the territories west of the Mississippi? That means that “Deadwood” to a degree is a fantasy. As such it is glorious entertainment with unusually, fine writing, directing, and wonderful performances. I cannot ask for more.

Watching “Deadwood,” you see grit and grime. Dirt and muck. Mud and waste, human and animal. We see people who we believe smell bad, but because everyone else smells as badly, no one seems to mind. Without much effort, I can detect the odors that rise from the street. Hygiene is beyond their wont. Poorly dressed, the people are often overdressed and foppish. Money is scarce. Poverty prevails. Many wear the same clothing every day. There are the obvious drunks. People doused themselves in booze and drugs. People tooted guns and knives. They killed with impunity. Seemingly, senseless murder was part of everyday life. Maybe mercury or other chemicals used to mine the gold in Deadwood flowed into their veins and damaged their minds. Rarely does anyone seem sane, or at peace with themselves or with others, and fewer even appear reasonable. Many were angry, probably because life was very difficult and unpredictable. We might call them mad, especially if today we saw them wandering the streets of a major city. Profanity was common and accepted. Foul language, a part of everyday speech. No language police apply here. Prostitution was a necessary part of life with the women in absolute servitude. Whores were chattel, but accepted as part of rough society. A determined woman could escape, but that rarely happened.
The directing is usually tight with very little wasted effort. The acting is dead on, though sometimes over the top. The camera work is superb. The editing is crisp. The set, a town built from scratch, is unique, especially given that each season they add new buildings. The costumes well researched. All that makes “Deadwood” appointment television for me because of its look, its feel, and even it’s sometimes stilted language akin to Elizabethan English or how people might have once talked in Appalachia. Simply put, Deadwood, the place, is the way the West may have been before Hollywood cleaned up its version of the old West.

The characters in the series rarely analyze their motivations. Those who can think ahead have the power to control the lives of others, and they exercise it. They often use brute power combined with anti-social behavior. Reactions to events and people are immediate and, other than what we get from the scriptwriter, they rarely seem calculated. When calculated, their emotions appear skewed. Perhaps the harshness of their lives, too much drink, drugs, bad food, and disease affect and addle their minds. From Al Swearengen, to Seth Bullock, to Cy Tolliver, to Joanie Stubs, to Calamity Jane, to Trixie, to Alma Garret, to Sol Star, to Doc Cochran, to George Hearst, to Charlie Utter, to Dan Dority and to all the other finely drawn characters, survival is everything. In a place like Deadwood, life has little value. When a killing takes place, you think it is senseless. Then you realize it fits the plot nearly perfectly. The West of Deadwood is not a place of niceties.

Not every script is perfect, though most of the characters and the plot lines are well drawn. Some storylines, though, are thin and not very compelling. I can do without the acting troupe – boring and characterless – and who cares. It is clear that Jack Langrishe is there to give some humanity and background to Al Swearengen, difficult at best. It is also almost as if he is there only for the hour about amateur night in the town. I am not certain why Steve the drunk – my name for him – has as large a role as he does. Yes, a bigot. Yes, a racist. The Old West is far from immune to bigotry. But why waste so much time on his character when those precious minutes could have been better spent on something else. Often here there is an attempt to squeeze too much into the fifty or so minutes for each hour, but that is a quibble. Despite these cavils, “Deadwood” is one of the best series on television. It makes almost everything else on TV, subscription, broadcast or cable, pale by comparison.

I am sad to see it go.

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At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on Today and wrote and produced for Sunday Today. At ABC News Productions, he produced and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner award, a National Press Club award, a International Documentary Festival Gold Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television awards and has been nominated for five Emmy's. He is a partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of, "The Soldiers 'Story", "Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon  Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.

 

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