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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

More than your average Western

Published: February 29, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

dc02290803.jpg“A Hell of a Place to Make Your Fortune” is the tagline for HBO’s three season mini-epic Western Deadwood. A show that totally encompasses history, drama, the west, the American Dream, and real friendship, Deadwood is one of those great television programs that structures itself around a basic story arc, complete with a predetermined beginning and end. The show advances its many characters through an overall storyline, and develops each one of them within the greater picture without ever coming off as episodic or digressing. And the characters themselves are all unique, multi-layered, and brilliantly performed. The best drama HBO has offered? Yes it is.

Deadwood revolves around its greatest, most flamboyant, toughest, and devious character, Al Swearengen. Based on the real historical figure, Swearengen runs Deadwood and its inhabitants through his saloon and brothel, as well as through more underhanded means, such as dope-running and murder. But Al, beautifully and scarily portrayed by Ian McShane, is a deep, deep character, built by the American West. One side is capitalistic and harsh. The other is wise, flamboyant, and brilliant. Chalk him up as television’s most likable bad guy of all time (Tony Soprano has nothing on Al Swearengen).

Countering Swearengen is the idealistic Puritan Seth Bullock (another real man, noted for his friendship with Teddy Roosevelt), a former U.S. Marshal content on running a hardware store. Bullock is a man with convictions, and from the first moment he arrives in Deadwood, is forced to resist his greater instincts to resume his former position in order to keep the camp from destroying itself.

Those two men represent the main forces behind Deadwood, but the true quality of the show revolves around its masterfully crafted secondary characters. From the boisterous and corrupt Cy Tolliver to the good natured and gruff Charlie Utter to the lonely and widowed New York transplant Alma Garrett, Deadwood is vividly revived in the viewers mind through the people who built it up.

I have to give special acclaim to several side characters, one being Calamity Jane. Robin Weigert portrays the famous Western character properly: rough around the edges, combative and crude, and she is a riot every time she is on the screen.

But her character has real heart, and it comes out through her friendship with Charlie Utter and the Doc, as well as her care early on for an orphaned Norwegian girl. The Doc, played by amazing human being Brad Dourif, is another great character. The one man in town who can get away with standing up to Swearengen, the Doc is a battered and frumpy Civil War veteran with a real bleak world view. But behind that worldview is a real concern for his fellow man. Again, really riveting stuff. There are so many more wonderfully put together characters that I would do a disservice to the show to describe all of them. But watch out for some great standouts found in characters such as Dan, Ellsworth, Reverend Smith, and Sol Starr. The performances in this show really are the best television has to offer.

However, one cannot simply focus on the acting. One must also douse great acclaim upon the shoulders of David Milch, Deadwood’s creator and mastermind. It is through his vision that the town is brought to life, and the overall thematic message is presented. Milch apparently went to great lengths to create an environment accurate to the real Deadwood of the 1870s, down to perfecting the dialect and dialogue of his characters (You won’t find any John Wayne-isms like “pardner” in this show).

Milch also runs the thematic gamut with this show, cramming in violence, swearing, sex, love, friendship, hardship, capitalism and much more into each one hour episode. In a way, Deadwood is entirely about America. A truly rich blend of history, style, commentary, Deadwood touches on the uniquely American idea of manifest destiny, and through its characters and story, touches on every aspect of it, and the consequences it has on the world around it. Go watch Deadwood.