Created by: David Milch
Starring: Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, Molly Parker
The year is 1876. Deadwood, South Dakota, so named due to it being surrounded by the corpses of trees.
Here is a prospecting town where men go to make their fortune, follow the American Dream, prospect for gold, and often wind up being shot through the eye and fed to pigs.
Deadwood is a town where there are no laws, except those imposed by the citizens themselves and the more powerful men in the camp.
If you’re lucky, you might land a successful gold claim. If you’re unlucky, you’ll wind up dead. If you’re really unlucky, it won’t be quick.
Deadwood begins with a couple of honest men travelling from Montana to set up a hardware store in Deadwood. Seth Bullock and Sol Star are two of the most honest men in the camp, and despite the fact that they are two of the most trustworthy and upstanding citizens, to call them our protagonists would be an over-statement.
The series follows the stories of several of the camp’s residents, including the eccentric Reverend Smith, the rich and hopeful Brom and Alma Garret, E.B. Farnham; the owner of the Hotel, and the self appointed Boss of the camp and owner of the Gem Saloon; Al Swearengen.
One of the most interesting aspects of Deadwood is the fact that it is a real place, and during the 1870’s, really did contain people by these names, in these jobs, and some of the events which take place throughout the series are noted in history books. Having said this, it is by no means a documentary, although you may find yourself occasionally thinking ‘Did that really happen?’.
Deadwood’s brutal, lawless inhabitants are all flawed in their own ways, and so there isn’t a completely sympathetic character among them. This makes for a nice change, as rather that being told who to root for, you just have to make the best of a bad bunch. Astonishingly written, fast paced and incredibly well acted, Deadwood has rarely a dull moment, and it seems you can’t get through an episode without someone getting drunk, mouthing off, getting high on opium or getting shot in the head. And, because it’s on HBO, expect boobs aplenty.
Although the language takes some getting used to, after a while you find yourself becoming quite accustomed to the way that the characters speaking, and soon after the word ‘Cocksucker’ stops having any real meaning.
I have found myself getting perhaps a bit too involved, perhaps overdosing slightly by watching several episodes back to back. Last night caught myself standing at the bar with my thumbs in my belt loops with a cigarette hanging lazily out of the corner of my mouth, fighting the urge to call people ‘Pardner’.
As I said before, all of the characters have flaws, some more than others, but it does mean that there is no one you can truly trust. This gives an edge to every one of the characters, so their behaviour is not always predictable, leading to interesting plot twists. Even the ones with whom you associate disloyalty and murderous tendencies have their moments where they go against the grain and wind up doing something honest.
Another reason for getting so involved is that every character has their own story arc, and rather than just playing supporting roles, you can have entire episodes based around one character, only to be following another the episode after. This adds a depth to the storytelling, and keeps you from getting too involved in any one thing. Obviously there are bigger plots which run over an entire series, and smaller, episode long plots, but every character has their own story to tell. Several dramas nowadays will have a small cast of main characters, and everyone else may have something going on, but they are essentially support roles. The Sopranos, for example, a show which I love, focused heavily on Tony Soprano and less on everyone else, but even his crew of heavies, main characters in their own rights, paled in insignificance when compared to whatever was happening in Tony’s life.
Although Deadwood could be seen as following the stories of Seth Bullock or Al Swearengen more than anyone else, their interactions have knock-on effects and lead to new storylines which make take you in a completely different direction, and so their apparent ‘Leading Roles’ act mostly as a vehicle from one story to another. Seth Bullock plays the volatile yet honest protagonist, and seems to be the only one with a working moral compass. Al Swearengen is the calculating, ruthless and dangerously intelligent antagonist. Whatever goes for Law in Deadwood usually comes down to whatever Al wants to happen. Two sides of the same violent coin; moral fibre and fortitude against cunning and fearlessness.
Even the title sequence is a wonderful piece of viewing in itself, and plunges you straight into the heart of the wild west. No matter how many times I hear the theme tune, I don’t get bored of it, and the visuals are so rich I always notice something new.
Not for the faint of heart, but rewarding to those who can stomach some foul language, the sight of breasts (lots. Lots of breasts) and a bit of gore and violence. Exquisitely scripted, fast paced and completely absorbing, I recommend Deadwood to anyone who has even the slightest interest in cowboys, and indeed to anyone who appreciates a good TV drama.
This is the west at it’s wildest.