Friday, June 23, 2006

Why Deadwood is better than most movies (and everything else on TV)

by Alanna S.
of gimme fiction and The Boob Tubers

1) The Writing. Most of the dreck on television [and at the movies] assumes its audience suffers from low-grade mental retardation, but Deadwood’s writers never underestimate their viewers. Episodes demand multiple viewings if you want to absorb every last scrap of dialogue, and trust me, you will. If the talk of the town sounds suspiciously melodious (though liberally seasoned with “fucks” and “cocksuckers”) that’s because much of it is written in iambic pentameter. And where it’s not beautiful, Deadwoodian speech will knock you over with its inventive vulgarity.

In one episode, regarding a man who is having an affair, Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) utters the filthiest and funniest metaphor I’ve ever heard on TV: “He’s been pickling his prick in the cunt-brine of another.” Wonderful. For a drama, the show has countless hilarious exchanges, but Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) gets the juiciest monologues. In a Hamletian moment from season two, Swearengen soliloquizes about political upheaval in the camp to the severed head of an Indian chief. To balance such high-falutin’ talk, he also delivers expletive-laden speeches while getting blowjobs from the myriad whores in town.

2) The Performances. Along with Hugh Laurie, Ian McShane is one half of an unholy duo of washed-up Brits finding new life on American television. His performance as Swearengen -- pimp, proprietor of the Gem Saloon, and unofficial overlord of Deadwood -- is electrifying. Yet despite his towering presence, he never eclipses the supporting actors. Brad Dourif is comfortingly familiar (because he’s a character actor who’s been in, like, everything) in the role of Doc Cochran, the most decent human being in the camp, who nevertheless is an alcoholic. Robin Weigert is a pathetic Calamity Jane, the town drunk who routinely wakes up in a puddle of her own piss, yet charms the hell out of a group of schoolchildren with stories of her work as a scout for Custer. Timothy Olyphant plays Sheriff Seth Bullock, who hopes to bring order to Deadwood but is always on the verge of explosion himself. No black or white hats here -- Swearengen isn’t as bad as you think, and Bullock’s not as good.

3) The Plot. As The New Yorker recently observed, with the caliber of writing and acting here you hardly need a plot to keep engaged. Yet Deadwood has plot coming out its ears, circuitous and long-ranging in its significance. Wrongdoings from past seasons echo through the current one, and characters get their hands very, very dirty building their society. It’s fascinating to watch as the formerly anarchic town gets annexed to the Dakota Territory and assumes the thin skin of civilization. The patience that goes into constructing the stories is clear, and the research behind Deadwood makes the show the world’s grisliest history lesson. Don’t expect such authenticity from Marie Antoinette, folks. Why aren’t you watching? Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.


Alanna said...

And you can now visit the aforementioned TV blog at

SwampHag said...

I'll be following this over to boobtubers but wanted to comment on this Deadwood entry..... soooooo great to find others who share my enthusiasm for this show. I do not get HBO so have had to wait for the seasons on DVD. I've watched the first season multiple times, complete with commentaries, etc., and am settling in to the second season now. It's just brilliant.

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