Why “Deadwood” was the Best TV Western Ever

The poetical prankster in me was half tempted to head this post “Milchwood”, a tribute to Joyce, Dylan Thomas and Deadwood‘s creator David Milch all at the same time (Milch” is German for “Milk”, btw), but it wouldn’t help me much in the SEO department now, would it? Milch, who turns 75 today, is the man in question. Sadly, he’s been in the throes of Alzheimer’s for several years now and portmanteau coinages describing run-together memories and concepts are likely how he is expressing himself for real. It’s a terrifying disease.

Milch was a rare catch for the television industry. He was what I call a real writer, one whose participation elevated the medium. He had an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, and held a BA from Yale, where he later taught writing. His poetry and fiction were published in literary magazines. He was, in other words, not a hack or a generator of pulp. A 1982 spec script for Hill Street Blues got him a job on the writing staff of that show, and he became one of Steven Bochco’s most valued collaborators until Hill Street went off the air in 1988. A half dozen years later the pair re-emerged with NYPD Blue, which I always thought of as “Hill Street Blues but more”. Not in terms of cast (hard to expand on Hill Street Blues’ operatic cast of characters, NYPD Blue‘s was much smaller) but in terms of its irreverent realism, both in language and in the kinds of events that were depicted. NYPD Blue pushed the limits. “Blue” seemed not just a play on the color of a policeman’s uniform, but also on the common euphemism for naughty entertainment. Profanity and graphic language were used, naked bodies were shown, and cops were depicted as guys who sometimes yielded to criminal temptation, a previous television taboo. The show was exhaustively researched from actual police cases. It made an unlikely star of Dennis Franz, who had played similar characters on Hill Street Blues and the Milch-created spinoff Beverly Hills Buntz. David Caruso became a HUGE star during the first season, but proved difficult to wrangle and even gave Milch a literal heart attack, so he was quickly replaced by Jimmy Smits of L.A. Law. This mega hit ran on ABC through 2005.

Meanwhile, Milch launched Deadwood on HBO. When I call Deadwood the best television western series, my smug New York friends usually say “That may be; I’ve never seen any tv westerns”. I’ll be generous and chalk the attitude up to being less one of projected superiority than a stituation of inopportunity. The television western was fairly moribund as mainstream entertainment by the time Deadwood premiered in 2004. But decades earlier, during the 1950s and ’60s the genre was inescapable. It was so popular that the three networks were glutted, saturated with westerns, not just the well known ones like Gunsmoke and Bonzana, but scores of less remembered ones of the type parodied by Tarantino in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. By the 1970s the genre had completely exhausted itself imaginatively. All of the stories had been told and told and told again. I’d like to be able to say that the violence that was its mainstay had also fallen out of favor, but that aspect was more than catered to by gritty contemporary crime dramas. People had just grown really, really bored with westerns. As a consequence, it became possible for people my age and younger never to have seen a TV western in a prime time line-up, something that would have been unthinkable during my young childhood, when there had been dozens on the schedule. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993-1998) is one of the few I can think of from the later period of drought. The other thing that happened during those years was the advent of universal cable television with its unprecedented multiplicity of networks. Channels began to specialize in terms of programming. Westerns might be seen on certain networks (TNT, for example), and thus never encountered by someone who spent all of their time watching other channels.

Thus Deadwood had some heavy lifting to do, and it did it. It not only had to seem better, it had to BE better. It had to acknowledge tradition (so as not to lose western fans) while avoiding cliches (so as not to turn off everybody else). It had to be realistic and not hokey. It had to be smart and not mindless. On and on and on. HBO was the perfect platform for it, as it had pioneered the idea (still new at the time, but now seemingly universal) of television programming that looked as good as cinema. Back in the day, TV was cranked out on the cheap and audiences merely accepted its limitations. But for Deadwood, a whole town, a replica of Deadwood, South Dakota was built (the only comparable example I can think of for this amount of effort in the name of realism is Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller). The set feels incredibly real. In the show’s early episodes it’s just a few months after the town’s founding (1876), when it is largely just a camp full of tents. The Black Hills were then technically Lakota territory at the time, but large numbers of people began to violate the treaty when gold was discovered in the area. The mania for gold and the foibles of living in a boom town (inflation, a flourishing vice economy) are the show’s central themes.

That might already sound trite to some, but the transcendent factor is HOW the story is told. The dialogue is written in a heightened, stylized, sometimes pseudo-Shakespearean take on 19th century language, seasoned with enormous amounts of anachronistic modern profanity. As a lover of history, I have mixed feelings about the fact that the show made no effort to instruct the viewer about this ahistorical choice. Words like “fuck” and “cocksucker” are used beyond frequently, particularly out the mouth of the town’s crime boss Al Swearengen (played with epic, delicious scenery chewing by Ian McShane). In point of fact words like these were not just seldom-used in the 19th century, they were NEVER used by almost everybody. I can’t say categorically that they were totally nonexistent; these are, after all, old Anglo-Saxon survivals. But let us say, “close to zero”. It was considered shocking enough for someone to say “God damn!” in the Victorian era. But that wouldn’t shock a modern viewer, and the intention is to convey that the wild west could be shocking, so Milch made this choice, which I think was a smart one, although I do think there should be some sort of explanation at the top of each episode because AUDIENCES aren’t that smart. When producers and directors claim that they are, they are being disingenuous in the extreme. A third of the people in this country think the President of the United States possesses, or ought to possess, the powers of an absolute ruler, that is, when they like him enough. No, American audiences aren’t necessarily very bright, let alone knowledgable about history. But profanity aside, the writing of Milch and his staff on this show is just dazzling, and I am extremely hard to please when it comes to period dialogue. The writers of this show get the spirit of the 19th century right, and that’s something almost all modern scribes fail at.

At any rate, McShane’s Swearengen, true to his name, swears up a blue streak, when he isn’t beating up Trixie his prostitute girlfriend (Paula Malcolmson) or murdering people who get in his way. He runs the town from his office atop the Gem Saloon without impediment, until a pair of men from Helena, Montana show up to cramp his style. Straight arrows Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Sol Star (John Hawkes) are ostensibly there for entrepreneurial reasons, to establish a hardware store. But Bullock has a background as a lawman and is rapidly drawn back into that role when Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine, resplendent in lengthy locks) is shot in the back and murdered very early in the first season, a wonderful gambit not unlike Janet Leigh getting killed 15 minutes into Pyscho. The arc of the show becomes about Bullock and other town leaders gradually bringing order to the growing town.

In addition to its Emmy winning art direction and writing, the show’s appeal lies in one of the best ensemble casts in the history of television, who not only do astounding work delivering Milch’s challenging dialogue, but in devising huge, out there (yet believable) characters. In addition to those named, stand-outs include Robin Weigert as the appalling, disgusting Calamity Jane, a farting, pants-soiling homeless drunk light years away from Doris Day; Brad Dourif, as a twitching, mad dog doctor who’s basically shell-shocked from what his job entails in a wild place like this; William Sanderson (previously of Newhart) as E.B. Farnum, the town’s hotelier and Swearengen’s scheming, cowardly lacky, a cross between Iago, Shylock and Gilligan; and Ray McKinnon as the town minister whose religious visions ultimately prove to be the result of a tumor in his head. The lovely Molly Parker plays a wealthy, morphine-addicted widow; the unspeakably great Jim Beaver, a prospector who becomes her business manager and then husband. Jeffrey Jones (Amadeus, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Beetlejuice) is comic relief as the town’s clueless newspaper editor. Dayton Callie plays Charlie Utter, sidekick to Wild Bill and antagonist to Calamity Jane. Powers Booth comes to town and becomes Swearengen’s principal competition with a much slicker gambling joint and whorehouse; Ricky Jay is his card dealer, Kim Dickens (Treme) his top fancy woman, who then branches out on her own as well. And there are recurring characters like the villanous George Hearst, father of William Randolph (Gerald McRaney) and a ham actor played by Brian Cox.

That’s just some of them. That’s a big payroll, on a show with lots of expensive location shooting, rich costumes, etc etc etc. It was an extremely costly show to produce. And it’s a western. So while it had respectable audiences the first season, by the second season the novelty had worn off and audiences fell off. It was abrubtly cancelled after season three in 2006, and in a way that was downright cruel to fans. That is to say, it didn’t end. The showrunners weren’t given the opportunity to wrap things up in a manner that a show like this deserves. There was an initial promise of a TV movie or two to cover events that would put a proper period on the series, but they never happened. Finally, in 2019 there was a movie, though it was set in 1889 when South Dakota was poised to become a state. It had almost the entire cast from the original series (no mean feat) and is true to the original in every way, although it caps off the series from a distance (i.e., doesn’t really put a period to the aborted plotlines of 2006, just picks up new events many years later). It was Milch’s last TV credit, and not a bad note to go out on at all.