Back in the saddle
My mother loved Westerns. She grew up watching cowboy heroes like Tom Mix, the Lone Ranger, and Hopalong Cassidy. It was a natural transition for her when the "adult" Westerns, featuring stoic lawmen, hardworking families, and brave exploiters of the wild frontier, premiered in the late Fifties. She watched them religiously. I watched them reluctantly. At the time, I thought they were as old-fashioned as rotary phones, avocado-green appliances, or girdles. In retrospect, I see Westerns as unapologetic celebrations of Manifest Destiny. Oh sure, every once in a while there would be a "very special episode" of say, Bonanza. In this, a Native American would be trotted out to intone on the misfortunes of his people at the hands of white men. There would be a "let's not forget our red brothers" sentiment, but ultimately, the message was, "we stole it fair and square. Let's move on."
Isn't it interesting that Westerns arrived at a time when the U.S. had high stakes in proving its world dominance and just as the space race had begun a slow trot toward the moon landing? In most historical dramas, the goal is not only to explain the past as much as it is to justify the present using the trappings of what seems a distant, perhaps glamorized past.
When Gunsmoke, the longest running series of the genre, ended after a now-unheard-of 20-year run, I thought it was long overdue. Never did I think the genre would rear its buckskin again. But here we are, mired in a conflict half a world away, W. talking about exploring Mars, and thanks to David Milch, (NYPD Blue, Hill Street Blues) we now have Deadwood, a new Western premiering on HBO this Sunday. Growing up watching Westerns like Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, The High Chaparral, and Rawhide, I think I can say with authority that Milch has made the old genre new again with this gritty, decidedly unromantic look at how the West was won.
The title refers to a settlement camp in the Black Hills of South Dakota where fortune-seekers, the lawless, and those looking for a new start set stakes. The series begins in July 1876, two weeks after the Little Big Horn massacre. Deadwood stands on land deeded to the Sioux Nation eight years earlier, but the rumor of gold has drawn fortune-seekers to the settlement, making another Sioux revolt a spectral presence in the series. Not surprisingly, the settlers view the Natives as obstacles to their striking a foothold in a place where, in spite of the crude setting, anything seems possible. But it's not "live and let live" that rules this world. It's play or be played, and this is what makes Deadwood riveting.
Like HBO's The Wire, Deadwood is a pensive, painstaking look at power-brokering among the new elite. Economic and physical brawn, social standing (unstable as it may be), and manipulation are tools of this world. This may turn off fans of old-style Westerns. However, the presence of several ethical (though flawed) characters that try to abide by fair play, honor, and loyalty will placate these fans and make Deadwood seem less an armpit of incivility to the rest.
Fictional and historical characters populate Deadwood. Among the ethical are Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a former marshal who moves to Deadwood with his partner Sol Star (John Hawkes) to start a dry goods business. Keith Carradine stars as the legendary Wild Bill Hickok, with whom it appears Bullock will strike up an alliance. Brad Dourif stars as Doc Cochran, Deadwood's overworked, peculiar town doctor, who deeply understands how Deadwood operates.
Leading the corrupt status quo is Ian McShane as Al Swearengen, a Tony Soprano-like saloon-owner who also happens to own most of Deadwood's most valuable real estate. Swearengen, like Tony, is capable of breathtaking brutality. However, void of any vulnerability or nuance, Swearengen comes off as a melodrama villain, minus the black cap and mustache-twirling. The same can be said of Molly Parker's Alma Garrett, a women of means who accompanied her husband to Deadwood in search of adventure and Paula Malcomson as Trixie, a prostitute who works for Swearengen. Both women, at least in the first two episodes, appear trapped by their own inertia more than their second-class status. Presumably, the women will become more than set-pieces during Deadwood's 12-episode run.
Deadwood premieres Sunday at 9pm on HBO. Check local listings for additional air dates and times.