David Milch is a man of principles. Never compromising his vision or settling for a standard dialectical show down, he has created one of the most enduring and endlessly fascinating shows of the last decade, “Deadwood”.
Set at the titular mining camp at the base of the Black Hills of South Dakota, “Deadwood” follows the members of the small, lawless community as they acclimate to or try to keep control of the unsteady nature of the makeshift town. But not being a part of the United States and owing loyalty to no one, Deadwood thrives on mischief, mayhem, whiskey, and whores.
Lined with an incomparable cast that never lets you forget the unencumbered joy and importance of their characters, “Deadwood” is a testimony to the cognitive and creative abilities of an entire group of people.
Originally airing on HBO, “Deadwood” was a show unlike any other. With its all encompassing cast, writing that would make even Shakespeare quake in his boots, and truly remarkable themes of success, acclimation and capitalism, Milch set a new standard as to the possibilities of scripted television.
The show follows Seth Bullock, played by the swaggering Timothy Olyphant, and his partner Sal Starr, played by the indispensable John Hawkes, as they arrive in Deadwood to set up a hardware store. Bullock was a former Sheriff’s deputy and quickly takes ill to the lawlessness of the camp.
He soon meets thriving businessman and proprietor of the Gem Saloon, Al Swearengen, embodied to perfection by Ian McShane. Swearengen believes in the lawlessness of the camp, because each night he pulls in anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 and he will go to any means to keep his income afloat.
On principles alone, Swearengen and Bullock are at opposition, and each subsequent meeting of the two destined-to-be-leaders fills both parties with contempt for the other.
Never before in television has the line between the written word and its acted out counterpart been so seamless. Each actor seems born for his or her role and Milch handles each character with the passion and dedication their lives rightfully deserve.
From the painfully underrated Brad Dourif as the incessantly busy Doc Cochran, to the magnificent Robin Weigert whose portrayal of Calamity Jane is a lesson in transformation in and of itself, there is not a single cast member here who falters or causes the audience to wonder his or her purpose in the story.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating characters in the show is Wild Bill Hickock, played by Keith Carradine. An actor who’s unsuppressed love for the craft has always been on full display, he shines here as a man coming to the end of his usefulness to the world. His portrayal of Hickock is tender, giving and quite frankly one of the most honest interpretations of any historical figure in recent story telling history.
And while much has been and will continue to be written about the writing and the acting, it takes more than two departments to create a show of this caliber. The lighting provides a mood unlike any other, warm and welcoming at times, while shadowed and dangerous at others. The set design is immaculate in invoking the craftsmanship of the times and the art department’s incessant brilliance is a treat for the eyes. Each character has a specific look that the costumers have created and each outfit embodies the characters to perfection.
A lot of dramatic programming is complacent with basic cinematography work, but “Deadwood”‘s use of the camera is effective in its ability to put the audience into the mind and surroundings of the characters, the camera acting more as a window to look through rather than a lens to capture.
While the show only ran for three seasons, it gave audiences a chance to witness programming that demanded more from a viewer than to just laugh when a track indicates to do so. It demanded attention to details and to words, it showed the widespread grasp capitalism was gaining before the turn of the century, foreshadowing its oppressive grip.
But most of all it showed a world hereto unexplored, giving way to lives and characters that are at the root of all of us, even if we can’t, or don’t, want to admit it.
This post is part three of a series, find the first article here The Best of the Set Pt. I, and the second one here The Best of the Set Pt. II.