We’ve been living in the so-called ‘Golden Age of Television’ for so long now that it’s become almost tiring. The endless variety of prestige quality series has become numbing rather than exciting; there’s only so much time and attention the average viewer has to bestow and so you have to ignore critical darlings of all stripes in order to have some kind of life that doesn’t revolve around the sofa. As a result of all the endless stream of buzz-worthy series vying for attention, telling someone they need to drop everything for a three season cowboy show that was cancelled in 2005 without a proper ending tends to engender some scepticism. When you add in the fact it stars Ian McShane from Lovejoy, the eye rolls get extreme enough to risk permanent ocular damage. None of this changes the fact that Deadwood is one of the best series ever made.
Deadwood charts the birth pains of the real-life gold rush town as it lurches from a brutally Darwinian camp illegally occupying Native American land to a fully incorporated township, complete with sheriff, mayor and banks. This is accomplished through a potent cocktail of shocking violence, incredibly rich lyrical dialogue, overflowing with the kind of soliloquies actors would give their eye-teeth for [albeit studded with the kind of profanity that could strip paint] alongside the kind of Machiavellian political maneuvering that makes the Tory leadership contest look positively genteel. Whilst it was running, the majority of the review ink was split over the shows violence. Indeed, the very first episode features the shockingly brutal beating of a prostitute that saw many prospective viewers switch off for good, but the violence very much plays second fiddle to the rich characterisation and dialogue. Show runner David Milch created a language that was almost Shakespearean, yet deeply lived in and comprehensible. One of the reasons that “Deadwood’s” violence is so shocking when it comes is that its characters feel so alive and real in the grounded world of the show. This is the reason the violence shocks so much; it’s not that it’s excessive, it feels real and so it horrifies the way it does in real life.
Since The Sopranos one of the great themes of prestige television in the 21st century has seen ‘anti-heroes’ throwing off the constricting bonds of law and society in order to achieve a self-actualisation they would otherwise be denied. Whether it’s Walter White’s Nietzschean rise to criminal majesty in Breaking Bad, or even Peggy Olsen chafing against patriarchal constraints in Mad Men; society is frequently presented as a stultifying straightjacket that characters need to break out of in order to fulfil their individual needs. Deadwood flips this rebellion on its head, focusing on the shared desires and needs that lead groups of people to sublimate themselves in a larger whole: in this case the town itself. The town is populated with both the best and worst of humanity [sometimes these two extremes are contained in the same person] and yet all come together episode by episode in the name of creating a more perfect union. The criminals want a more ordered system to protect their ill-gotten gains as much as the people want defences against them. Progress comes piecemeal, compromise and corruption hand in hand, but steadily the town creeps towards respectability. If “Deadwood” is about anything, it’s about how the human impulse towards altruism is as hardwired and vital as our self-interest. Even Ian McShane’s seemingly moral free saloon keeper cum despotic ruler comes to be subconsciously ruled as much by what’s good for the town as for himself [though he does conflate the two].
If this has been something of an academic review of an incredibly human, passionate show that’s because focusing on the characters is impossible in such a constrained space. Whilst McShane is as close as the show comes to a lead, this is an ensemble piece with the list of ‘major characters’ approaching 15; each who can take over a scene without warning. The show isn’t really about any of them though, it’s about the town, it’s about people and how we fit together. After over a decade HBO is putting out a film to finally draw the previously unfinished narrative to a close and if that’s not a good excuse to finally sit down and watch some of the best dialogue ever put to film, I don’t know what is. Take it from me, free f—king gratis.
Deadwood the Movie will be reviewed in our July edition