June 16, 2008
Deadwood . . .
Posted by Fred Tung

. . . the HBO series, not the unproductive faculty member.  As long as we're on the topic of summer entertainment, I thought I'd put in a plug for this HBO series that has really grabbed my wife and me.  It went 3 seasons through summer '06, and since we don't get HBO, we're just now working our way through the series on DVD.  At first blush, the Wild-West-mining-town milieu seems a really unlikely backdrop for such a great show--terrific characters, sophisticated story line (complete with historical political economy)--and I could easily have passed it over on initial investigation.  Its "sleeper" quality makes this series especially blogworthy.

As you'll see, it's not Kung Fu Panda--definitely not for kids.  Indulgent profanity, graphic violence, frequent nudity and some sex. The show takes place in 1870s South Dakota, in a little mining camp called Deadwood before its annexation to the Dakota Territory.  Pete Dexter wrote a novel about the same town in the 1980s.  Perhaps the town's biggest claim to fame, to the uninitiated, is that Wild Bill Hickok was killed there in 1876.  The movers and shakers of the town include the two men who run its competing brothels and a reluctant sheriff who fled a similar job in Montana to open a hardware store in Deadwood.  If you can get over the gratuitous profanity and graphic violence, it's a great story that is largely based on real people--including not only Wild Bill Hickok, but also Calamity Jane and George Hearst, father of William Randolph Hearst--each trying to make his/her way in this lawless and violent place.  There is love and death, dreams made and shattered.  The rival brothel owners constantly scheme against each other to take over the town while also trying to advance an advantageous annexation of the town to the United States.  The reluctant sheriff is frustratingly principled about law enforcement, reminiscent of Gary Cooper in High Noon.  There is a Chinatown that suffers its own turf wars.  The dialog is very clever, and the characters have exceedingly sophisticated motivations for a TV show.  Perhaps what I enjoy most is that the (or at least my) perception of who are the bad guys changes over the course of the season, a transformation that is generally not easy to pull off.

Practice tips:

1.  See at least the first 2 or 3 episodes before you decide thumbs up or thumbs down.

2.  If you are getting the DVDs one at a time from Netflix or Blockbuster Online, be warned that the last DVD of each season is a "special features" DVD, with no episodes on it.  At least with Blockbuster, the episodes are not separately described on the website, so we have been twice surprised with the special features disk.  At first, we were frustrated because of our dashed expectations about seeing the next episode right away, but we decided to browse through the special features anyway and were pleasantly surprised.  The historical stuff at the end of season 2 is quite interesting.  Most of the main characters actually existed, and the real story of Deadwood is fun after you've watched the series for a bit.

The special features disk at the end of season 2 is really a paean to David Milch, the executive producer.  Despite its self-indulgent quality, I enjoyed seeing how the show was made.

Check it out.

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