HBO may be the only network that had three members of the pantheon of great television dramas of the 21st Century running concurrently at the same time, namely The Sopranos, Deadwood and The Wire.
The Sopranos was a massive breakout hit. I caught up with the first few seasons on DVD (rented from a video store) and then subscribed to HBO to watch the final few. It was hard to avoid hearing about who got whacked (at least engaged in pop culture in the New York area, at least). With Deadwood, I caught an episode here and there on HBO and loved the rhythms of the dialogue. Being somewhere in the middle of the story, I had no idea what was going on, but Al Swearengen is one of the most indelible characters to hit the small screen, and David Milch’s language takes a little bit to adjust to, but it draws you into a very different world. In 2007, I put Deadwood Season 1 Disc 1 into my Netflix cue and watched the first few episodes.
The next disc I had in my queue was The Wire, Season 1 Disc 1. I had not heard about the Wire at all in its first few seasons, but at the time had been starting to hear that The Wire was the best show of all time. After watching the opening scene of the first episode, I was hooked. I forgot about Deadwood and watched the four seasons on DVD as quickly as I could — breaking down and buying the seasons 3 and 4 sets, because waiting for Netflix to deliver the discs was too slow. Deadwood fell by the wayside.
Last year, Alan Sepinwall started blogging season 1 as his summer blog rematch project. I started in weekly, but quickly fell behind and eventually gave up.
When I was in elementary school, I kept starting to read the Chronicles of Narnia a few times, which resulted in me reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a few times and never finishing the series. I don’t think that going on in Deadwood is going to be nearly as frustrating. After all, the first episode uses “cocksucker” a lot more than C.S. Lewis used in his entire life.
So here is take three of watching Deadwood. Please join us for the journey.
Inform your dealers and whores of my credit and pour me a goddamn drink. Let’s dive into episode one after the jump…Deadwood is largely rooted in the actual history of Deadwood camp, with most of the characters, including Bullock, Swearengen, and of course, Wild Bill Hickock being based on real life figures. Not being closely familiar with the history, there is still plenty of room for surprise.
Because it’s a period piece, I wonder if Deadwood will hold up better than The Sopranos or The Wire. To some extent, The Wire is already a period piece – the first season debuted ten years ago and was based on police work for a case that happened years before. Even at the time, it was somewhat of a period piece. But Deadwood is not at all modern.
I read an interesting take on the HBO dramas positing that Deadwood was about the creation of institutions, The Wire about the ossification of institutions, and The Sopranos about the decline of institutions. Deadwood is creating a society in the absence of any law, and as such, is a story about how man functions in a state closer to nature. Without institutions, we see people acting more ruthlessly and openly and violently than with more law and a sense of community.
This first episode of the show sets up a slow brewing conflict between the community as it is, where Al Swearengen1 is the power broker of the camp, and society that lives by law, represented by Bullock. Even though Bullock isn’t coming to Deadwood to be the law — he and his partner are there to open a store and sell hardware and make some money — he can’t resist riding out to see who did for that family who were murdered.
Keith Carradine’s take on Wild Bill Hockock as weary and coasting on his fame and ability to intimidate makes an impression. But besides Swearengen and Bullock, the other character who arrives not only fully formed, but who is played with both big, bold strokes and very small grace notes of variation is Robin Weigert’s take on Calamity Jane. She’s a brash woman who likes her drink, but also obviously has unrequited feelings towards Wild Bill.
And the less said about Doc Cochran’s techniques, the better.
Feel free to use Deadwood levels of profanity. So go ahead, you cocksuckers, what did you think of approaching the show at this point and this first episode?
1which truly is the best possible surname for this character, who is indeed a swear engine. (Groan) Thank you, I’ll be here all night. Try the veal.