Tuesday, June 27, 2006

On Deadwood

I planned to read a lot this summer. Instead, I've been watching a lot of TV, much of it on DVD.

Television is often considered the lowest of the low cultural forms. But as a cultural studies professor recently reminded me, postmodernism collapses the distinction between "high" and "low" art. So if we are postmodernists, then we can discuss television on the same level as ballet, which is considered the indisputably "highest" of the high arts by those who still make such distinctions.

Although it's not nearly as popular as The Sopranos or Six Feet Under, Deadwood ranks with those television shows as a cultural work on par with the best American novels, plays, films, and yes, even ballets. The show, currently airing in its third and probably final season on HBO, is strange, smart, funny, and worthy of serious discussion.

Television relies on characters more than any other medium. Whereas a filmmaker can use attractive visuals and a novelist can use stylish prose to attract an audience, a TV show needs strong characters to draw viewers back week after week.

Deadwood, set in an American West outpost camp settlement in the late 1800s, is populated by characters - and there are a lot of characters populating this show - who reject the laws and values of mainstream society in favour of their own moral code. Killing a man is justified if you are avenging the death of a family member, but not if you are getting back at him for a trangression against you. There is no good and bad in Deadwood, just different shades of ugly.

Al Swearengen, played with great depth by Ian McShane, is the most interesting and important ugly character. Swearengen owns the Gem Saloon and is the de facto ruler of Deadwood - he's been there the longest, he has the most money, and he's killed the most people. That changes when characters like Will Bill Hickock, an outlaw with a reputation for having the fastest gun in the West, and Seth Bullock, a former Montana sheriff with a quick hand of his own, and worst of all, Belle Union saloon owner Cy Tolliver, show up at the camp. The show draws its tenson from the interactions between these characters, on both personal and business levels. We get lots of facial closeups that allow us to read into their minds, even if our assumptions usually end up being wrong.

Much has been made of the foul language on the show. There's no more swearing than the HBO norm - go back and count the number of "fuck"s Peter Krause uses in any Six Feet Under Episode episode - but the swear words frequently used ("cunt," "cocksucker," and "ass fuck" among them) are more explosive than mere F-bombs. More interesting is the way the dialogue combines this modern, curse-laden language with Shakespearean rhetorical devices. This can make the language difficult to understand at times, but close listening reveals brilliant lyrical flourishes and clever metaphorical allusions.

Television this good is as fulfilling as anything.

Ooh. I just remembered. Canada's Next Top Model is on tonight.


Blogger clifford d said...

whats it say about me if i'm naturally attracted to tv comedies. what between the office and arrested development, and now, curb your enthusiasm, with a healthy dose of seinfeld on the side.

there're instances like, say, watching mission impossible 3, and im all like, 'that was quite the engaging 2.5 hours of spy adventure, wasn't it.' and then the rely is 'eh, it was just an extended episode of Alias,' (Alia's writer/producer did write MI3, i'll concede that).

i guess it's the john doyle argument from months back in the globe, in a debate with rick groen, film critic, in which he basically says TV is putting out equal, if not greater, works or art compared to film.

in other news, do go see superman returns.

12:06 AM  
Blogger Carley Fortune said...

Didn't Batman just return?

1:33 PM  
Blogger Marco Ursi said...

If you're into comedies, I think it means you like to laugh. All three of the newer shows you mentioned are not only hilarious, but also interesting and challenging, though I do think Seinfeld, while still mostly funny, has dated considerably in the last few years.

2:32 PM  
Blogger clifford d said...

nono, batman just began.

4:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this review a lot, especially the discussion of art in the beginning. Is ballet really considered the highest of the arts? How dull. I would have figured novels, or at least classical music.

Glad you're still in the reviewing game. Keep it up.

--Ben Marlin

4:10 PM  
Anonymous Barry Hertz said...

I have just started watching Deadwood from the beginning as well...oh, Hi, by the way! I found your blog while at work. I agree Al is interesting, but for some reason I'm really intrigued by Charlie Utter. What a weird character...it only gets better in the second season, especially when Charles Wolcott is introduced.

AND: The HBO show Rome is also awesome, I recommend it.

7:34 PM  
Blogger Marco Ursi said...

Naw, I made that ballet thing up.

7:11 PM  
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6:07 PM  

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