Although it looks like season three will be the last, Deadwood has been another triumph for the US premium channel HBO. Like many viewers I had been looking forward to something like the seven seasons and ten years that The Sopranos had. Deadwood has built its own cast of compelling characters and in Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) it has a complex, charming sociopath to rival Tony Soprano. But it is true to history that Deadwood should be short lived; the real town was destroyed by a fire in 1879 (the cost of rebuilding the set perhaps put HBO off funding a fourth series) and, perhaps more damaging to the prospect of further seasons, shortly after the rebuilding the Methodists closed the brothels.
With Deadwood, HBO has certainly cemented its reputation for ‘cinema quality’ programming. The first episode was directed by experienced western filmmaker – a rare breed nowadays – Walter Hill. Included among his many credits are Wild Bill (1995)(partially set in Deadwood of course), Geronimo (1993) and one of the great mud-and-blood westerns, The Long Riders(1983). Not only that, but he brought his cinematographer, Lloyd Ahern II, with him. Although the two men only worked on the first episode, a standard for the look of the show was set that was maintained throughout. Later episodes were directed by two key Sopranos directors Alan Taylor and Tim Van Patten while eighties indie legend Michael Almereyda was even brought in to direct one. The show’s main director is Ed Bianchi, who also worked on the equally acclaimed TV series The Wire. However, as is always the case with television (and almost never with cinema), the man most recognised as the auteur of the piece is its key writer, David Milch.It was Milch who also created two of the most successful cop shows on TV, Hill Street Blues (1981-87) and NYPD Blue (1993-2005), two series that were praised for their realism and in the latter case for its strong cinematic style.
One can almost imagine Milch pitching Deadwood to the HBO execs as ‘The Sopranos out west’ and it is certainly closer to that genre (the HBO adult drama) than to its predecessors in western TV history such as Gunsmoke (1955-75) and Bonanza (1959-73). Only Lonesome Dove (1989) had similarly high production values, with a first-rate cast and a great script but its setting, a cattle drive, makes it a very different show to Deadwood; the style and mood of the two series are worlds apart. If Deadwood has any forebears they are more likely to come from the cinema – particularly the ‘revisionist westerns’ of the sixties and seventies. The look of Deadwood with its sepia tones (and the copious mud) is reminiscent of McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) although it does not go as far as Robert Altman’s film – much criticised for its blurry images. Both works depict the growth of a mining camp into a town with images clearly based on nineteenth-century photography. However, Deadwood gives us complex, intelligent characters (Warren Beatty’s John McCabe is neither) and more plotting and scheming than I, Claudius or Dynasty. It has much in common with the soap-opera – all that is missing is a Joan Collins conniving ex-wife.
Deadwood begins in July of 1876, two weeks after the death of Custer at the Little Big Horn. Much of what takes place is based on historical fact: the gold rush turning to deeper mining; the small pox outbreak; the political machinations as the Black Hills become part of South Dakota State (more complicated than The West Wing). What’s more, a surprising number of characters are based on real former Deadwood inhabitants – not just the well-known Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane but also Seth Bullock, Al Swearengen, E.B.Farnum, Sol Starr and many others too. However, this certainly doesn’t mean that one should expect faithful historical accuracy from the show. As David Milch says, ‘history is just a lie agreed upon’ and nowhere is that more true than in the western. The falsification of the west began almost immediately through dime-store novels and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the nineteenth century. Many of (the ‘real’) Calamity Jane’s stories of ‘indian hunting’ with Custer have proved to be false. The ‘revisionist western’ is usually caught between wanting to show things as they really were and wanting to be a ‘western’. Thus, in Unforgiven (1992) the myth of the dime-store novels is exploded, only to have it ride through the storm and take revenge in the finale. In Deadwood the western myth is not given the serious debunking it gets in Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) but neither does the series portray the west of Kevin Costner – where historical accuracy seems to equal big moustaches.
Deadwood‘s cast of characters is one familiar from many a western: the corrupt saloon manager who runs the town, the straight-shooting sheriff and the prostitute with a heart. Perhaps the only character that isn’t familiar to westerns is the female drunk. Jane (never called ‘Calamity’ – she just is one) is a million miles from Doris Day and far closer to Dean Martin’s character at the start of Rio Bravo (although she shows no sign of ‘getting it together’ to save the day). But unlike the typical western, Deadwood has a soap-style ensemble cast and is not centred on the hero/sheriff. If anyone is the central character it is the show’s ‘J.R.’ – Al Swearengen – the town boss, saloon keeper and whore-house owner. It is normally against such characters and their hired guns that the western hero must avenge himself as Sterling Hayden does in Terror in a Texas Town (1958). But revenge is rarely a motivation in Deadwood. It is a place of business, of laissez-faire capitalism where more noble motivations are not to be trusted. As the legendary Wild Bill Hickock soon finds out, it is a place where heroes are shot in the back. With this shift of focus away from the hero the western stock characters are given depth, motivations and their own running storylines.
But the most strikingly original aspect of Deadwood is the language. Never before in film or television have the people of the Wild West spoken this way. We have become so used to the cowboy’s ‘aw shucks’ and ‘darn it’ (the occasional use of a ‘hell’ always reprimanded by the house matriarch with a ‘mind your cussing’) that the language of Deadwood seems anachronistic. One assumes David Milch researched this and found ‘cocksucker’ the most common curse of the 1870s. Still, as with David Mamet and his swearing estate agents, one wonders whether this is how they really spoke or whether Milch is using language in the same way that he’s using the sets and the cinematography – to create a unique world.
In his 1972 book on the genre, Michael Parkinson claimed with some justification that ‘the TV western has only ever followed behind its big brother in the cinema’. Well, with Deadwood the television western has finally equalled, if not surpassed, its cinema equivalent. Perfectly adapted to the hour-long soap-opera structure, produced by an impressive team of writers and directors, featuring acting of the highest quality as well as a brilliant soundtrack, Deadwood has truly revolutionised not only the western, but also the TV series in general, and all this despite the casting of Lovejoy as the main character.