Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Deadwood - Season 1 (2004)

Deadwood - Season 1 (2004)

Created by David Milch of 'NYPD Blue' fame, 'Deadwood' is a gritty, violent, lewd, and foul mouthed drama that, like other HBO shows, pushes the boundaries of propriety on the small screen. It's about the establishment and growth of the town of Deadwood in the 1870s, and the prominent individuals who were present and involved in events at the time. Though based on real history and real people, it apparently takes a few liberties. I recently finished watching the first season, and found it to be an impressive and engaging show.

'Deadwood' is less about straightforward narrative and more about characters and their interactions. The overall story is that the town of Deadwood is up and coming and is soon to be annexed to the US, prompting many entrepreneurs to settle in town to establish businesses early or look for gold in the hills. It's a somewhat lawless place full of violence and scheming. The show is very dialogue heavy and mostly comprises scenes with characters plotting and second-guessing each other's actions, playing politics, or having heated confrontations, but there is a fair bit of raw and brutal action interspersed throughout as well. One of the defining and most endearing aspects of the show is the idiosyncratic style of dialogue, which runs the gamut, from monosyllabic words uttered by the illiterate to the verbose monologues of the more gifted orators in town. Another key facet of the show are interesting, well defined, and sometimes atypical relationships - friendships, alliances, and romances - that have a pervasive influence on characters and events.

The roster of characters in Deadwood are many and varied, but two stand out as the focal points. One is Al Swearingen (Ian McShane), the ruthless owner of a bar / brothel who is the de facto man in charge of the town; the other is Seth Bullock (Timothy Oliphaunt), a tough and honourable former Sheriff who wants to make a fresh start in Deadwood. These two immediately butt heads and are seen as key figures by everyone around them, and much of what goes on in town links up with them in one way or another. All of the other characters are no less compelling, being diverse and well fleshed out. They include wealthy widow Alma Garret (Molly Parker), hotelier E. B. Farnum (William Sanderson), Swearingen rival Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe), Seth's business partner Sol Star (John Hawkes), prostitute Trixie (Paula Malcomson), Doctor 'Doc' Chochran (Brad Dourif), and drunken loudmouth Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert).

The performances are fantastic all round, but McShane and Oliphaunt really own the show and are the iconic standouts, one a verbose and sinister businessman and the other a stoic symbol of strength and honour. But as I said, everyone's good; the ones who come to mind as my other favourites are Robin Weigert's Calamity Jane, Sanderson's Farnum, and the always interesting Brad Dourif as the Doc.

Needless to say, this HBO show has stellar production values. The sets, locations, and costumes all seem, to my untrained eye, to be perfectly evocative of the period depicted and steep the show in verisimilitude. The stark and desaturated visuals and the music round out the package and sell the gritty atmosphere perfectly.

'Deadwood' may not be to everyone's taste - some people seem to be turned off by the very look and subject matter of the show - but those who sit back and let themselves be immersed in the world depicted will be well rewarded. To be fair it is very deliberately paced, with the whole season taking place over the course of weeks (or a few months at most) and no 'big' events taking place for much of that time. But that doesn't matter to the show, because it's more concerned with how the little details and small scale events cumulatively determine the fate of the town. An excellent and unique series that thoroughly deserves its good reputation.

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