There's a great story going around about the origins of HBO's "Deadwood." David Milch, one of the co-creators of "NYPD Blue," took a meeting with HBO executives and pitched a show about Rome's Praetorian Guard and the evolution of law and order at the time of Nero. The HBO guys said, "Actually, we're more interested in a Western," and supposedly Milch replied, "Doesn't matter -- it's the same thing."
Comparing any other TV Western to an allegory for the rise of civilization would sound ridiculous. Watch a few minutes of HBO's "Deadwood" (9 p.m. Sundays), though, and Milch's vision makes sense. A rogue's gallery of Dickensian characters, all waging losing battles against their baser impulses, populate the squalid mining town. The omnipresent mud of Deadwood's streets seems almost like the primordial ooze from which civilized society grudgingly emerges.
Murders and Machiavellian plots command most of the attention throughout "Deadwood's" first two seasons and continue in its third, but governments and institutions have taken shape as well: town independence, banks, elections. In one of the gently humorous scenes that make "Deadwood's" violence bearable, Jewish shopkeeper Sol Star (John Hawkes) and a hired thug Adams (Titus Welliver) agree to a real estate transaction. When Adams spits in his palm for the "official" handshake to seal the deal Old West-style, Star instead nods to the contracts and says, "That's what these are for."
Unquestionably, "Deadwood" contains a Nero figure in the person of Al Swearengen (the grand Ian McShane): saloonkeeper, whoremaster and personification of the seven deadly sins who frequently stands on his balcony like a Roman Emperor overlooking his domain. McShane makes Swearengen so pungently villainous he could be the devil himself, except he supports Deadwood's establishment as a self-sufficient community -- if for no other reason than he can exploit it for himself, rather than share it with outsiders. Frequently Swearengen finds himself on the same side as reluctant Sheriff Seth Bullock, whom Timothy Olyphant vividly plays not as a strong, silent lawman but a seething, angry one.
The town's conflicts and alliances sharpen even more in the new season with the entrenchment of grasping mining mogul George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), and Deadwood needs government not just to draw order from chaos, but also to protect its citizens from the powerful and merciless. Like most of the show's characters, including Bullock, Swearengen and recent addition Jack Langrishe (a thespian played by Brian Cox), George Hearst was a real person, these days most famous for fathering newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst).
You can question the accuracy of Hearst's characterization, but McRaney -- most famous as the star of "Major Dad" -- rises to the occasion to make Hearst a robber baron of compelling cruelty. Initially a mining tycoon obsessed with gold, which he calls "the color," Hearst increasingly covets control of the town and its operations, engineering anti-union violence. McRaney finds the emotional underpinnings to psychotic behavior from outbursts of sadism but the fits of remorse that Hearst just can't process.
"Deadwood" features some of the most memorable performances on television, partly because the roles are so much larger than life, like the way Robin Weigert's Calamity Jane wavers between drunken grief and foul-mouthed, ironic invective. Milch's scripts clearly revel a love of language that go beyond the epic profanity (if the show has a catch-phrase, it may simply be the word "cocksucker"). Some characters speak in a heightened jargon that draws on the rhetoric of the Bible and Shakespeare, like when ferrety Mayor E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) calls a sidekick "a grotesque of inconceivable stupidity." Sometimes language breaks down completely. The season opened with a conversation in Cornish, while Swearengen and his Chinese crime lord communicate with drawings and Pidgin English.
HBO dramas tend to start their seasons by lighting a long, slow fuse that combusts near the finale -- although lately "The Sopranos'" fuses tend to sputter to the point of going out completely. "Deadwood's" current arc, though at times convoluted, builds to a rousing mini-climax on the July 9 episode that features an indecently entertaining, clash-of-the-titans fistfight in the streets. Occasionally "Deadwood," like HBO's "Oz," feels like a soap opera awash in blood and testosterone, but it lives up to its enormous ambitions. Despite its dime-novel Western trappings, "Deadwood" is the rare television series that feels like literature.
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