Weekly Watch: Deadwood

So, somehow, I completely missed Deadwood during its run on HBO. By the time the wife and I decided we should check it out – largely on the strength of all the people in it who went on to other great shows – we couldn’t find it streaming anywhere. Luckily, when HBO premiered the follow-up film (creatively called Deadwood: The Movie) a little while back they ran the entire series on one of the subsidiary channels. We loaded up the TiVo and, over the last few weeks, worked through all 36 episodes and the movie.

My general impression? Expectation is a hell of a drug.

I’ve seen Deadwood called one of the greatest TV shows of all time and a singular achievement. I’ve seen fans still in thrall to it on the Internet for years after the show ended prematurely (the plan, as I understand, was for it to be a four-season run). All that led me to expect, to want, a really profound viewing experience, something to stick away in my pantheon of all time greats. It’s probably not surprising that, to my mind, it doesn’t measure up.

To be sure, there are a lot of great things about Deadwood. The main characters – and the actors who play them – are great. Al Swearengen is one of the best “evil motherfuckers with a heart of gold” ever conceived. The arcs of reforming prostitute Trixie and (multiple) widow Alma are excellent. Law man Bullock is kind of a killjoy, but at least he’s consistent about it and struggles with it.

A large part of what makes them great are the words creator David Milch and the writers put in their mouths. Deadwood is downright Shakespearian at times, if Shakespeare had grown up listening to George Carlin records. The show is famous for its cursing, even though its particular verbiage might be a bit anachronistic. The show also got a jump on Game of Thrones’s famous “sexposition,” with several scenes where Swearengen waxes poetic about his back story while getting an unsatisfactory blowjob.

If not precisely accurate, the language is part of the overall feel of the show that makes it seem a lot more realistic that your typical western. People piss in buckets (or the street) and cough up lungs. The murdered die slow, bloody deaths. Pigs are used as waste disposal tools Tony Soprano would envy (fun fact – my wife and I also discovered this while simultaneously watching Gentleman Jack, set a few decades earlier). Everything’s small, dirty, and cramped. Deadwood starts in a kind of state of nature, so it’s only natural that life there is often (to borrow a phrase) violent, nasty, and short.

But here’s the thing – most of what happens in that milieu and most of what’s propelled by those awesome words isn’t really that compelling. In reviewing the movie the AC Club said that the “cowardly murder that follows forms the spine of the movie’s second act, but any narrative is just gravy.” That’s in an otherwise positive review, but it seems true to me of the entire series. The show doesn’t seem so much interested in where it’s going, so much as how we get there. I can appreciate that, but it doesn’t thrill me. And it leads to times where the narrative jumps for no good reason other than it has do (I still don’t understand how the big elections in town first don’t happen, then become county-wide later in the third season). Beyond that, the plotting and scheming that everybody gets up to gets a little tedious, particularly since there’s very few people involved to actually root for.

And when those schemes involve those outside main characters, things get rough. For some reasons, many of the minor characters (like the “mayor,” E.B. Farnum and any of Swearengen’s goons – and why they hell did Garret Dillahunt show up three times playing three different characters?) begin as a kind of comic relief, a release valve from the swaggering fuckery of the main characters. But as the series goes along they move from pleasant respite to broad cartoons that don’t really resemble human beings anymore. This is where the very stylized language hurts, because coming from the mouths of those characters it multiplies the cartoonishness.

Which all ends up with Deadwood being a series that I admire for large swaths but didn’t really love. The movie, for what it’s worth, is basically more of the same and while I can see why fans were happy to have it back, if only for a little bit (I love Serenity, after all), reviews I’ve seen saying that it provides “closure” must have a different meaning of the word than I do. I’m glad to have caught up with it and seen what all the fuss was about. If nothing else, it’s added “hooplehead” to my vocabulary, so for that I fucking thank it.

Deadwood

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