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Deadwood Review

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by Casimir Harlow Apr 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    Western TV series are something of a rarity these days. With the exception of multi-part TV productions like Lonesome Dove, we haven't really seen much in the way of Wild West TV shows since their heyday back in the time of Rawhide and Bonanza. However, with Western movies receiving a new lease of life after such successful visions as Costner's Duvall-starring Open Range and Tommy Lee Jones' The Missing, it was perfect time for a new Wild West TV series. Enter, Deadwood.

    Historically, Deadwood is purportedly the resting place of the famous ex-sheriff-turned-gunslinger William Hickok, better known as Wild Bill. The first series of the show kicked off with his arrival but, after a few episodes, it became dramatically apparent that he was not to be the star of the show. The closest thing you could get to a 'hero' to replace him was Bullock, another ex-sheriff who, with his best friend Seth, was keen on merely starting up a small business and just keeping himself to himself.

    Deadwood had other plans for Bullock, with a certain bar/whorehouse owner called Al Swearengen emerging as the would-be villain of the piece. More like a mafia boss than anything else, he appeared to have control over everything that went on in Deadwood (at least in the first season) and ruled his territory with an iron fist. I probably should not go on any further without pointing out that this show is so good that - if you haven't already seen the first season - you should probably stop reading right now and go and pick it up. If you're not yet convinced yet though, or just need a recap, feel free to read on.

    The first season saw these two central protagonists face-off against one another on more than one occasion, but it also saw shifts in their character along the way. The most significant change was with Swearengen himself, who Ian McShane transformed into one of the best TV characters ever created. Swearengen went from being an aggressive, foul-mouthed, dictatorial bad guy to being, well, more like an aggressive, foul-mouthed, dictatorial anti-hero. This sounds slight, but in terms of heroes and villains it was a significant development. Initially utterly despicable, whether in the treatment of his enemies, his stooges, or the prostitutes that work under his roof, it soon became apparent that, at least in Deadwood, he is a very necessary evil. Even more crucially, he also showed signs that he actually had some humanity in him, which was more than could be said for his rival brothel-owner, Cy Tolliver, whose presence truly reminded you how much worse things could be without Swearengen around.

    Bullock underwent plenty of changes himself, mainly through the repressed sense of justice that is bottled-up inside of him, something which eventually resulted in him accepting the role of town Sheriff, at the behest of Al himself. At the end of the first season, the two came to some kind of truce and the town seemed almost at peace. Bullock too finally succumbed to his feelings for a pretty widowed woman in the town, who he was initially under a duty to watch over.

    The second season kicks off with everything seemingly as it should be. Swearengen's rival brother owner, the twisted Tolliver, is finally letting his main girl, Joanie Stubbs, go her own separate way, although with much more bitterness than when Swearengen let his main girl Trixie follow her heart (right into the arms of Bullock's partner Sol Star). The ill-appointed figurehead Mayor E.B. is still sticking his nose where it's not wanted and talking like he's still living in Shakespearean times, whilst the town Doc is continuing his admirable quest to treat everybody - both verbally and medically - honestly and without holding back (he is possibly the only person who can talk to characters like Al and Calamity Jane so damn honestly). Talking of Jane, both her and the other one of Wild Bill's old friends, Charlie Udder, are still rumbling around the town, lost without their leader.

    Unfortunately, as is more and more the case with TV series these days, the opening two-parter throws everything up in the air and it takes some time for some things to be normal again, whilst other matter are simply never going to be the same again. Swearengen's increasingly poor health leaves him so grumpy and snappy that he risks his very uneasy truce that was somehow established between him and Bullock and subsequently has the whole camp up in arms. Furthermore, a couple of new arrivals threaten the small piece of happiness that Bullock and the widow Garrett have carved out for themselves - and all this within the first couple of episodes.

    Across the season we find the town still being torn - politically - between the clutches of Montana and Dakota, a further new arrival adding an extra dimension to the concept of sadism and many shocks in store for the key townsfolk. To say any more would be giving away too much and spoiling the surprising twists and turns, but overall it is an eventful season.

    Deadwood, written by David Milch, the man behind the excellent Murder One, is so successful - and so damn good - not only because of its characterisation and sheer drama, but because of its outstanding script. The first season was stunning in its use of words, at times sounding very poetic and almost Shakespearian (E.B. - as I've already stated - is a classic Bard character), despite the vast profanity, used especially by Swearengen (who never fails to fit an F-word into every sentence he spits out).

    This second season follows the same lyrical format, with most of the characters talking in an all-but indecipherable tongue, where you sometimes need a second, or even third, viewing to catch exactly what was said. It is like a Wild West version of The West Wing - and as such it takes quite some effort to keep up with. Unfortunately, I would say that this second season goes a little too far in its complex language - so much so that following it can truly become an arduous task. Still, it is a fantastic show and if my only complaint is that the script can sometimes be too clever for itself, then you know that this is still going to be classy viewing.

    Packed with some superb acting talent, the cast is led by our very own Brit, Lovejoy's Ian McShane (somewhat unlikely, but nevertheless perfectly cast in the role of Swearengen), with Timothy Olyphant (Girl Next Door) on top form as the upstanding but nonetheless very human Sheriff, Bullock, Molly Parker (The Center of the World) as the lovely Widow Garret, Powers Boothe (Sin City) as the sadistic Cy Tolliver, Brad Dourif (Alien Resurrection) as the honest Doc Cochran and William Sanderson (Bladerunner) as the nosy E.B. Farnum. All in all it is a superb Western drama, built on an amazing (if overly complicated) script, excellent performances, authentic sets and clever plotting. It comes highly recommended.

    Episode List:
    1. A Lie Agreed Upon Part I
    2. A Lie Agreed Upon Part II
    3. New Money
    4. Requiem for a Gleet
    5. Complications (Formerly “Difficulties”)
    6. Something Very Expensive
    7. E.B. Was Left Out
    8. Childish Things
    9. Amalgamation and Capital
    10. Advances, None Miraculous
    11. The Whores Can Come
    12. Boy the Earth Talks To