Wednesday, December 03, 2008

DVD Junkie #1: Deadwood

Oh, December, how I love thee. For this is the one time a year when HBO shows become affordable to real human beings. Here's how it works: once an HBO show has been on TV for roughly a year, the network will release a ridiculously overpriced, uselessly ornate DVD of the season to us struggling masses who won't pony up $20 a month for the two or three hours a week we'd actually watch the damn channel. Besides obviously giving us sad peons the chance to have our very own special piece of premium television, these DVD's have recently become redundant with the advent of HBO full-season DVD sets. Why pay $80-$100 a season when you can wait a year or two and get the whole shebang for $150? This is a banner year for HBO box sets, with three great shows being released in their entirety - The Sopranos, The Wire, and that lovable romp through the cocksuckin' old west, Deadwood.

Any of these three would be worthy of a long and meandering personal review, but unless you've been under a rock for the past 6 years, you already know you should watch the Sopranos (and shame on you if you haven't) and if you were still under that rock when the hipsters discovered the Wire, then you might not know that it's very popular these days to say ZOMFG TEH WIRE IS THE BEST SHOW EVAARR DID YOU KNOW ITS ABOUT DRUGS AN BLACK PEOPLE? Both of these shows are fantastic, don't get me wrong, but their quiet, foul-mouthed cowboy cousin is what I'm focusing on today.

The western genre has swung wildly from great to terrible since its heyday in the mid 20th century. In the past 20 years or so, it's been increasingly abysmal - with 10 "Texas Rangers" for every "Unforgiven" that comes out. On TV, the odds of something worth the five minutes it takes to get to the first commercial break are next to nil, with the only one I can think of off the top of my head being "Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman" and that's a show that's so toothless even senior citizens find it condescendingly crowd-pleasing. We get it, Solitaire has ditched the sexy Bond-villainy and been transported to the Wild West, where she's a woman in a man's world who wears a hat and blah de blah blah blah...zzzzzzzz

Anyway, one of the only bright points on TV in the straight western genre is Deadwood, the golden child of David Milch - he of Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and other blue things fame. Set in a lawless town before the annexation of the Dakota territory, Deadwood centers on a rotating cast of around 10 characters, some based on actual people, some not, but all of whom could probably use a good bath.

Now let me just preface the rest of this review by saying that I'm a huge fan of westerns. I'm a sucker for antiheroes and most westerns worth watching serve them up with reckless abandon. Also, morality is turned into a compellingly personal and flexible concept in fiction based on the old west. It's like an end of the world survival film, but without the cataclysmic inciting incident or zombie horde. Getting breakfast or playing a quiet game of cards with your best friends is a matter of instant life and death every day, and through that sense of urgency, tension can be kept at a fever pace even through 6 minutes of people silently staring at each other across a graveyard. The stakes are sky high the minute the title card fades, so if you've done your job your audience is already involved.

Deadwood is a show you would buy a used car from. It's convincing, and reliable, and above all else, is absolutely fascinating. The characters shoulder the plot with grace and skill, especially in the first season. You honestly care about what their fate, and when major characters get killed off, there is a true sense of loss. Above all else it grips the gritty realism that is so characteristic of the post-sopranos hour-long drama with a reckless tenacity, down to the speech patterns in the dialogue and the wanton, awesome violence.

It's a little-known fact that mustaches served as currency in the old west.

The cast was mostly made up of unknowns four years ago - Timothy Olyphant had yet to steal the Internet in Die Hard: Deathrattle, and the various actors that made up the original major cast had, god bless 'em, been climbing the industry ladder the hard way in Law and Orders, small episode runs in shows not Law and Order, and small parts in movies. The biggest exception to this was Ian McShane, an actor with a 50-year pedigree in theatre, film, and movies. If you're over the age of 30 and British, you might know him from his previous show "LoveJoy" which was apparently created using the British standard for creating dramas: madlib

"a [lovable/foppish/shrewd] [name of quirky profession/vicar/timelord] travels the countryside solving mysteries, with the help of their assistant, [young woman/comic relief/close definitely “heterosexual” friend]"

In re-watching the first season, I am first struck by the slickness and ease of the opening sequence - designed by Rock Paper Scissors and a52 visual effects (which is better known for car commercials and music videos, most notably the quite ridiculous "God Gave Me Everything" by Mick Jagger), one thing you can say about HBO is that they know how to set a tone. Their long opening sequences are like foreplay, and it's quite obvious they know this by how much care and design know-how goes into each.

There's a lot that's been said about Deadwood's dialogue. It's not in iambic pentameter, as many people have posited, but it might as well be. The cadence and the sheer density of it is almost overwhelming. In a genre that is characterized by silent looks and shoot first ask questions later, the residents of deadwood are unusually chatty. So much of the story happens in the dialogue that you find yourself paying close attention without really realizing it, so when someone gets shot or stabbed or somesuch it's that much more brutal because you're already so involved. And if you've got a problem with profanity, this is not the show for you. Not by a long shot. Just as an example, here's an episode from Deadwood cut down to nothing but its profanity (obviously, extremely NSFW)

It's two and a half minutes long. By my art school math education, that's something like 5%? 5% of this show is swearing. Awesome.

Also, I can't stress the strength of the cast enough. There are times in the later two seasons where the writing lags, and the story gets lost in its own opulence, meandering through its paces for episodes at a time. These are the times that the best actors shine - most of the times that this happens Ian McShane as brothel owner "Al Swearengen" shoulders the plot, with the considerable talents of Robin Weigert, Dayton Callie, W. Earl Brown and Brad Dourif taking the most of the rest of the burden until the story gets back on track, so even when she story is weak, the show is quite strong. Technically, Timothy Olyphant's "Seth Bullock" is the other main character of the show, but he's not one of the shining stars of the cast. Everyone is beyond capable, but Olyphant seems to phone it in a tad more than others, glowering and tight-lipped mumbling his way through much of the series, though some of the best moments in the show happen when Bullock and Swearengen are in direct conflict.

Much like many of the situations in the show, Deadwood did not come to a pleasant end. Deadwood's story progressed in two-season arcs, with a nice, clean temporary resolution at the end of each even-numbered season. The show was cancelled suddenly after the third season had wrapped shooting, so the end is frustratingly open. It was a very expensive show to produced, with sets and costumes almost all having to be created from scratch, and at the time HBO was in the middle of Rome as well, which was even more expensive, so the economic reasons for canceling make sense. But fans of the show at the time were angry and bitter, and would have sworn up and down that the reason the show was cancelled was David Milch, and specifically his new show John From Cincinnati which was heavily promoted shortly after word got around that a 4th season wasn't going to come.

The average Deadwood fan's opinion of "John from Cincinnati"

Part of me thinks that that show failed because people were angry about Deadwood. I'm not going to lie, I still have considerable resentment that we never got to have the closure that we all craved, especially since the third season seemed to be leading the show in a different direction, with many new characters being introduced then never shown to pay off. But the vigor with which its fans defend and mourn their fallen show is simply more proof of how compelling and immersive Deadwood is. God rest the soul of that great show ... and pussy's half price for the next 15 minutes.

All three seasons of Deadwood will be released in a shiny 19-DVD box set on Tuesday, December 9th for $108.99 on It's well worth it.

DVD Junkie is a weekly review of TV Series on DVD. Kosmic has seen more TV than could possibly be healthy by anyone's estimation, and never sits with her back to the door when playing cards.


Onyx said...

Welcome aboard Kosmic Blues! I really feel ashamed that I haven't seen more than an episode of Deadwood. I love westerns and hope that somehow the genre hits a renaissance and blows audiences away.

I think I'm just generally behind the times. I recently discovered this "netflix" and have used it to summon The Wire to my home. It makes me sad to hear that a lot of people have already seen it and declare it a great show. I enjoyed living in my little bubble. I will use the magic of "netflix" to summon Deadwood soon.

When I was back home I saw a bunch of episodes of Trublood. Would be interested in hearing your opinion on that eventually.

Zombie said...

I'll second that welcome! And wonderful review. Deadwood stands as one of the handful of TV shows I've watched all the way through multiple times - three times, in this case.

Onyx - what's your holdup? I've got the DVDs sitting in my apartment and Cake Man is certainly never going to get around to watching them. I'll hook you up.

Leetal said...

Dr. Quinn DOES wear a hat! OMGZZZ!

Hi Kosmic from the underworld.

I wish I could participate, but the whole NYC based thing doesn't apply to me... how's about an exception here?

Cake Man said...

I'm gonna watch it. Maybe even this weekend a bit. Whaddya think of that, huh?

(P.S. how's Dexter coming along, Zombie boy?)

Zombie said...

When'd you give me Dexter? Last month?

When'd I bring up Deadwood? When I went home in June?

Yeah, that's right.

Cake Man said...

But Dex...ter...