November 16, 2006

Dead Man's Hand

Two months ago I finished downloading the 36th episode of Deadwood. Wow! What an amazing ending! The 3rd season is the most beautifully-crafted masterpiece of tension-build-up I had ever seen in television.

I found out not long ago that the series is now officially cancelled!

Oddly, I am at peace with Deadwood ending at just the current three seasons, with a promise of two more 2-hour movies to come. This way, nobody can ever claim that the show "jumped the shark" or collapsed under its own preposterous story lines.

Even better is that we can re-live the show from start to finish on DVD and not cringe at early episodes that might have missed the mark.

Deadwood's glory lies in the details. The rich, layered and often "too-hard-to-understand- completely-on-just-one-viewing" kind of details. Deadwood didn't spoon-feed you like you were some moron on the couch who needed his hand held through another CSI episode.

In fact, I can't wait to go back and remember when the only real dangers in camp were catching a cold or getting shot while playing cards. I want to remember when Al Swearengen was the meanest mother****** you had ever seen. I want to relive every glorious curve of creator David Milch's visionary story arc.

Milch always wanted to make the actual town of Deadwood, the central star of the show, not any one person.

He succeeded.

The fictional camp of Deadwood, S.D. (not unlike the real camp and now city of the same name) was a perfect microcosm of what America was then, is now, and will always be: an aggressive, power-driven, money-obsessed, lustful, free-wheeling, fun loving, violence-laced society that somehow retains its civility and better virtues throughout it all.

Sure, there were lots of ways to die in Deadwood. Shall I count them?

Having your throat slit.

Being thrown off a mountain.

Being stabbed in the (pick your body part).

Being shot in the (pick your body part).

Being pushed onto antler horns.

Having your eyeball pried out and bashed with a board.

Being drowned in a tub.

Having a brain tumor.

Blowing your own brains out.

Bashing an Indian's head in with a rock.

Getting run over by a horse.

And that doesn't even count the ways to ALMOST die in Deadwood, which were often worse than just buying the farm.

Like having a kidney stone treated with something called a "gleet." Or being dropped off in the woods to die of the plague. Best yet, getting kicked square in the temple by a horse.

Amidst all that savagery, Milch constantly showed the American impulse for self-betterment. Whether it was Joanie having her own whorehouse (then schoolhouse), Trixie with her accounting, Bullock as the Sheriff, E.B. Farnum as "Mayor," or even the Little "N" General with the livery -- the characters were all STRIVING for something more.

And the characters' more generous personality traits were always right there beneath the muddy surface of Deadwood. As Charlie Utter said in that meeting about Bullock's condolence letter in the paper: "It says that's the kind of people we are, and we don't give a f*** who knows it."

In addition to being one of the most violent shows in TV history, it was also one of the most profanity-laden shows in TV history. Thank God it was safely out of reach from the FCC and snooty parents protest groups.

Throw in some gratuitous, late 19th-century whorehouse boobies, and what was there NOT to like about the show? The fact that Milch eagerly employed the two nuclear "C-Bombs" of modern English (both the four-letter one that women hate, and the ten-letter one which will start a fight between men) was brilliant.

Initially, some critics seized on the heavy use of these words (and others) to brand them a cheap attention grabber for Milch and HBO.


Do you think that in such an era of the Black Hills gold rush, with "no law in Deadwood," such words were NOT used with great regularity? I mean, come on.

I had planned to go back and assemble the definitive list of both the best lines in the show's glorious three-year run as well as the best scenes. But, I quickly realized it was a project that would take weeks to complete properly.

For those of you who have somehow read this far, without having seen the show once, I bet you are asking this question: "Well shit, if Deadwood really was this good, how come they are canceling it?"

A fair question, but one that misses the mark.

For starters, the sets, the costumes, the extras, the animals, and the production costs were shooting through the roof as the fictional camp of Deadwood grew in size and scope.

This, not to mention the cost of renewing contracts for the massive ensemble cast.

At roughly $5 million per episode, you better have a show which makes people send extra money to HBO in their cable bill, just as a way of saying thanks.

And Deadwood's ratings, while solid, never gained mass appeal. Which is fine. Because quite often, "the masses are asses." Like I said before, this show made you work. And it was extremely challenging to anybody who tried to pick it up mid-season.

Warning, spoilers from the finale in next paragraph:

When I watched the Season Finale of Deadwood on my Mac with my heart pounding through my shirt. Weeks and weeks of tension had been brought to a boil. The fact that it all "ended" without a single shot being fired was perhaps the show's most brilliant outcome. The show ended up with the bad guy getting pretty much what he wanted, but the rest of the camp getting to live another day. It made perfect sense, don't you think? Most of the people who ended up in the Black Hills back then didn't do so by being reckless or cavalier about living or dying. They were survivors. They had to make uncomfortable bargains at every step of the way. Letting Hearst ride out of town unscathed was just another one. He got Alma Garrett's gold claim, while Bullock got to stand in the thoroughfare and insult him one last time. It was a bum deal, but it was the only one on the table at the time.

I certainly hope that HBO and Milch actually do get around to making the last four hours of this story. But even if they don't, the show can rest peacefully in my mind as the single greatest drama I have ever seen on television. There simply is no comparison to that kind of greatness.


the doodlers said...

We thoroughly enjoyed Deadwood! Your comments are spot on. If I could watch no other show this year I'd be quite happy to have seen this series.

Stanley Thunderbeard said...

Deadwood's the shit. You should move on to The Wire. I think it might be HBO's best show.