Deadwood has long held the title as my favourite series that I haven’t finished yet. I watched the first two seasons back in my days of extralegal downloading before realising that it was simply too good to watch in anything less than sterling quality. 5 years later I finally have the blu-rays in hand and I’m ready to give this series the attention it deserves. Of course, the side effect of so much anticipation is to put the show on a pedestal. My memories of this show are all jaw dropping brilliance and the premiere doesn’t quite qualify. I know that’s more unfair expectations on my part than any deficiencies on its, but it’s still hard to judge just how effectively it draws us into this world when I’m left feeling slightly dissatisfied.
One thing the premiere definitely gets right is the balancing act required for such a large ensemble. There’s no room to provide anyone with an abundance of screentime but, brief as the sketches are, they’re still effective in telling us what we need to know about the characters. More importantly, the episode takes the time to complicate our impression of the key ones. Bullock’s stubborn devotion to the law would seem to make him ill prepared for the “lawless” town of Deadwood but, for now at least, it seems to serve him well as it’s what saves the little girl and sees the bushwhacker dead. Jane’s drunken bluster masks an “excitable” vulnerability. Hickock’s world weary gunslinger is even more bluster than he realises himself. And the “something special” that Trixie’s giving to Swearengen isn’t at all what we were expecting.
Swearengen gets his own paragraph, as he should. Deadwood‘s entry into the modern parade of antiheroes was a great character from the first moment he appeared onscreen. There’ll be plenty to set Al apart from this overused archetype as the series goes on but, for now, I’ll just point out that his villainy is played straight for the first 99% of the episode. Where Tony Soprano started out in the therapist’s chair, Walter White taught science class, House saved lives, and Dexter took the right ones, Swearengen makes his first impression as a conniving thief/pimp/murderer. We’re permitted to spend almost the entire episode thinking of him as the villain and then, in its final moment, we’re assured that he’s human. We can imagine why Trixie might be sleeping with her pimp, but the tenderness of her touch and the vulnerability of Al’s response let us know that something far more complicated is going on.
Many of Deadwood‘s other key elements are on display here. There’s the grit and the gore, the wry sense of humour, and that oh so amazingly poetic filthy language. Whatever lingering sense of disappointment I have is, as I said, based on my own inflated expectations as I’m wracking my brain to come up with any specific part that doesn’t work. If I had to pick one it’s that the premiere does very little to point to an actual arc. There’s some mention that the town may be annexed by the Union but, for the most part, it’s content to just place the characters in this wild sandbox. I’m not exactly complaining about that.
I actually didn’t realize that this week was the show’s tenth anniversary. Woo-hoo for synergy.
McShane’s rightfully praised for his work on this series, but Brad Dourif is actually my favourite cast member as I found some of his work on this series outright amazing. More Doc please.
To circle back to Deadwood‘s “poetry,” I’m a huge fan on dialect in film and television (likely explains a lot of my love for Buffy), so you can forgive me if I gush overmuch about this one’s.
There are some obvious comparisons to be made between Deadwood and the other great Western deconstruction, Unforgiven. While Eastwood did the unflinching Western first, he still permitted the frontier one element of romance in its glorious, wide open landscapes. There’s nothing like that here; the town’s a foul smelling mud hole, the wagon train’s a stalled, sweltering mess, and the open road is a place of banditry and carnage.