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Television: True Grit

8 minute read
James Poniewozik

As its hooves thunder on the horizon, HBO’s Deadwood (Sundays, 10 p.m. E.T.; debuts March 21) might seem like the cavalry coming to rescue viewers affronted by Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl flash. Something innocent! Something wholesome! A nice western!

Sorry, pardner. In the opening minutes of the series, about a true-life gold rush town, a prospector says he’s “f___ed up [his] life flatter ‘n hammered s___,” while the legendary Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) calls her associates “ignorant f___in’ c__ts.” Land o’ Goshen! Has nobody in this burg heard of “consarnit” or “tarnation”?

Ask creator David Milch whether pioneers in 1876 really swore like the Sopranos, and the former Yale instructor quotes Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century The Miller’s Tale, which used the same anatomical slur that Calamity Jane does (though, in Middle English, it started with a q). Milch says most of our high-megaton profanities are centuries old, and accounts of the West “are full of the testimony of people whose sensibilities have been scandalized by the resourcefulness of the human spirit in fitting so many obscenities in the most ordinary declarative sentence.” This, he says, was the point: Deadwood, S.D., was outside the bounds of the U.S., the law and propriety–just as Milch is now beyond the long reach of the ABC censors who dogged him on NYPD Blue, the show he created with Steven Bochco. Take a group of criminals and scofflaws, mostly men, risking ruin or murder to seek their fortunes–who then blow said fortunes on hookers, craps, dope and booze–and in any century, their epithets will be frequent and stronger than “dagnabbit!”

Really, the language issue is a stand-in for a bigger question. There have been other dark and complicated takes on the western–Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove–but they, like westerns themselves in recent years, have been as occasional as tumbleweeds. We still associate the genre with the moral simplicity and cliche of its heyday: straight-shooting, black and white hats. (When President Bush said he wanted Osama bin Laden “dead or alive,” he wasn’t going for relativism.) Are we ready for the genre of John Wayne and Shane to get the gray-hatted HBO treatment?

Milch says he set out not to write a western but to explore a society just starting to form its laws. He first pitched to HBO a series about cops in Rome during Nero’s reign. After that project fizzled, he started reading about Deadwood, a town that sprang up when reports of a gold strike were hyped to justify expansion into Indian territory. “It was like time-lapse photography,” he says. “Two months before [Deadwood begins], there was nothing. Two years later, they had telephones, before San Francisco did.” The settlement had no laws, purposely. “It was a primordial soup,” Milch says. “How do people organize themselves, absent law?”

For starters, by killing one another. In this and other surface ways, Deadwood is like many westerns. There’s a bad guy, saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), who lives large by relieving the locals of their gold nuggets and having his thugs plant a bowie knife in anyone who gets in his way. But he is threatened when–yes–strangers ride into town. Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) is a former marshal with plans to open a hardware store. He’s less a good guy than a control freak. In his last act as marshal, he hangs a horse thief without trial, so a mob won’t get the satisfaction of lynching him. Does he want to serve justice or just give chaos the finger? The impetus to law, Deadwood suggests, is as much one as the other.

Meanwhile, renowned shootist Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) has come to town with his retinue. (Most of the leading characters are based on real people.) To Swearengen, the formula is simple: former lawman + gunfighter = nascent police force, especially when the two stumble on a massacre-robbery perpetrated by “road agents” working for him. It seems, though, that Bullock just wants to kick his law habit and make a dollar, and Hickok, to drink and gamble his way into oblivion. “Hickok was acutely aware of his time having passed,” says Carradine. “He had outlived his usefulness.” Throw in abused prostitute Trixie (Paula Malcomson); Alma Garret, a laudanum-addicted lady from back East (Molly Parker); and E.B. Farnum, a hotel owner and Swearengen’s beaten-cur sycophant (William Sanderson, Newhart’s Larry), and you have a typical–if dysfunctional–horse-opera cast.

Deadwood HBO-izes this material, though, not just in its profanity but in its moral ambiguity and social criticism. The show is like McCabe for more reasons than that it involves whorehouses and business conflicts. Like the ’70s movies of Altman, Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola and others, HBO’s dramas rework popcorny genre formats (the cop drama, the Mob flick) with dark, even cynical themes: that institutions are corrupt, that people and systems and families will screw you over, that heroes are never entirely heroic or villains alone in their villainy. Deadwood wants to show not just how the West was won, but who won, what they got and how the process mirrors our time.

Some of Deadwood’s strongest insights are about the symbiosis between a racist society and the groups it despises. Take the camp’s Chinese cook Wu (Keone Young), who is the butt of slant-eye jokes but has an indispensable role. When someone wants to keep a murder quiet, the corpse is fed–despite the cook’s silent disgust–to Wu’s pigs. (Which, yes, the townsfolk eat.) Even more essential are the Indians or, as they are dehumanizingly and incessantly called, “the godless heathen c__ksucker Sioux.” Although it’s two weeks after Custer’s massacre at Little Bighorn, they don’t appear, except as a constantly invoked and useful menace. Swearengen’s road agents even scalp their victims to make it look like an Indian attack. You can’t miss the post-9/11 point about the line between danger and exploitation. “An Indian was never seen in Deadwood alive,” Milch says. “But if you keep people agitated, they’ll drink more and they’ll gamble more. So the deep thinkers–the guys who ran the saloons and the brothels–liked to keep people stirred up to the idea of an outside threat.”

Milch knows a thing or two about the addict’s mind-set. While studying and working at Yale in the ’60s and ’70s under literary giants Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, he says he led a double life as a heroin junkie and gambling addict before cleaning up and becoming a writer for Hill Street Blues. Addicts and gamblers, says Milch, have a “risk taker” personality–just like prospectors, which is why so few of them got rich and so many saloonkeepers did. Says director-producer Davis Guggenheim: Milch has “something most people with intellect don’t have–very colorful life experiences.”

The writer puts both intellect and experience to good use, especially in Deadwood’s dialogue, which is vulgar but well crafted, even oddly formal. (“If you’re going to murder me, I’d appreciate a quick dying. And not getting et by the pigs. In case there is resurrection of the flesh.”) As with NYPD Blue’s mannered police slanguage–or, for that matter, iambic pentameter–no human speaks this way. But the writing does what good dialogue should, which is firmly establish its own world and its own logic.

Deadwood is not the next Sopranos. Everyone likes Italian food, whereas this is beef jerky–slow chewing, an acquired taste but substantial. Sometimes Milch’s Shakespearean ambitions get away from him, and the story can drag. But the acting is strong, especially Carradine’s leonine, sad gunslinger, who asks his handlers, “Can you let me go to hell the way I want to?” Then there’s Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif), the town’s physician and its secret keeper–he inspects Swearengen’s whores, covers up cases of smallpox, ignores evidence of murder under duress and hides a young girl who witnessed the road agents’ massacre–and the pressure has him wound like a watch spring. The best moments in Deadwood happen at the margins, not in gunfights but in the pig pens and doctor’s office, as we discover the ecology of this nascent community. It’s worth a visit. Just so long as you don’t mind getting a mite dirty. –With reporting by Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles

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