Sunday, May 15, 2005

# Posted 11:03 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

DEADWOOD -- SEASON ONE: I find it amusing that so much of what I rent at the video store consists of repackaged television programs. But I refuse to pay for cable (let alone HBO), so instead I have to wait until it all comes out on DVD. That may not sound economical, but now that TiVo and the like have put so much pressure on video stores, I can rent as many discs as I want for just $9.99/month, which is much less than cable (let alone HBO).

The price I pay for this roundabout approach to entertainment is that I see all of my favorite programs long after the MBA-having, BMW-driving, HBO-waching elite has digested them and spit them out. So please forgive me for reviewing the first season of Deadwood, which those of you with MBA's, BMW's and HBO will have seen long ago.

The bottom line about Deadwood is this: It is extraordinary. HBO continues to produce television shows that are far more sophisticated than 95% of what comes out of Hollywood.

FYI, Deadwood was an actual 19th century mining camp in the Black Hills. At the time, the Black Hills belonged to the Sioux, so Deadwood was not part of the United States of America and therefore had no laws, since all of its inhabitants were trespassing on Sioux territory.

The great strength of Deadwood is that it is a show about an entire world. Television is full of doctor shows and cop shows and political shows and romance shows and cowboy shows, but Deadwood integrates all of them into a single vision. By crossing over incessantly from genre to genre, Deadwood smashes the cliches that often make other shows so boring. Instead, it explores relationships that are so rarely portrayed on television.

The character who best represents this crossing and subversion of genres is Doc Cochran, the town's physician. In one of the show's first episodes, Cochran cares for an immigrant orphan whose family was murdered by highwaymen. Whereas most doctor shows just tell you what is wrong with the patients, Cochran jealously guards such information and regularly mispresents the orphan's condition to others in town.

Why? Because Cochran suspects that the highwaymen who murdered the orphan's family are in the employ of saloon owner/crime lord Al Swearengen. If Swearengen expects the child to die, he won't try to have her killed because of her potential to identify his thugs.

The situation becomes more complicated because Cochran earns a good amount of his income from Swearengen, who pays Cochran to be the gynecologist for the whores in his brothel. Because whores in a 19th century mining town are subject to considerable abuse and isolation, Cochran knows that he is often the only one with a sincere interest in the girls' welfare. Yet because of that humanitarian mission, it is dangerous for Cochran to lie to Swearengen about the orphan, since it may prevent him taking care of the whores (and being paid for it).

That is just a sample of the complex relationships in which Cochran is involved. Thus, the wealth of detail provided in the previous three paragraphs just begins to suggest the degree of narrative complexity favored by the creators of Deadwood. As Steven Johnson might rush to point out, watching Deadwood is good for you because it forces to engage in sophisticated intellectual analysis.

At the same time, Deadwood revels in its ability to take televised (or any other kind of) profanity to unprecedented heights. Above all, the screenwriters for Deadwood fetishize the word "cocksucker", which is used to describe just about every male resident of the town, in the way that you and I might describe someone as a "guy".

[NB: Although I make a habit of putting asterisks in words such as "f***" and "s***", that won't exactly work with "cocksucker", since "c***sucker" doesn't accomplish enough and "c*********" would simply be confusing.]

Frankly, I find this obsession with profanity off-putting and gratuitious. In one of the mini-documentaries that comes packaged with the DVD, the show's creator, David Milch, suggests that the use of profanity is integral to the characters' realism. To remove it would compromise the characters' emotional authenticity and thereby prevent the audience from truly understanding them.

First of all, I wonder whether 19th century Americans even used the word "cocksucker" as often as Deadwood suggests. However, I am going to trust Milch on this one since he used to be a lecturer in the English department at Yale. Nonetheless, in spite of the show's admirable devotion to recreating the costumes and architecture of the American frontier, it takes so many liberties with other aspects of realism that toning down the profanity would hardly damage the show's historical mission.

For example, what do you think the odds are that all of the most important people in the real Deadwood mining camp were extremely good-looking? Not high, to say the least. However, Milch doesn't seem to mind giving in to the Hollywood convention that actors must be good looking.

One detail that really hammered home this sort of un-realism was when, in the final episode of season one, we discover that heroic ex-lawman Seth Bullock has perfectly shaven chest. Now, history does suggest that the real Seth Bullock was a heroic ex-lawman. But I seriously doubt whether his pecs were that frikkin' smooth.

I raise this point because Bullock is a character who seems to test the show's commitment to moral and narrative realism. He is simply too perfect. As chance would have it, the most ethical man in town is also the most strikingly good looking. Moreover, Bullock has 21st century attitudes toward gender and race despite living in one of the most racist and sexist parts of 19th century America. (Then again, Bullock is himself an immigrant from Canada, so perhaps that is why he is so enlightened.)

In the course of Season One, Bullock relentlessly antagonizes all of the powerful but morally deficient men in town, regardless of the threat this might present to his own safety. He also rescues and watches over the most beautiful damsel in distress, ultimately bedding her (at which point we discover his shaven chest).

This is where things may get interesting. Bullock is married, and his wife and child are set to arrive on the scene in Season Two. On the other hand, Bullock only married his brother's widow and adopted his child as a gesture of good will, so we know he isn't "really" cheating. So, will the screenwriters find an easy way out for Bullock that allows him to keep both his damsel and his reputation, or will Bullock suddenly turn out to be somewhat human?

Even if the screenwriters make the wrong choice about Bullock, however, this would hardly take away from their superb achievements so far, as well as I what I expect to be an extraordinary sophomore outing.
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