I haven\’t talked about it much on this blog but I am in love with a show called Deadwood. It only took me a few years after its cancellation, but having spent the summer watching the series twice in a row it has quickly changed the way I feel about television, dialogue, and my beloved western genre. Its insane creator/writer/director, David Milch, I was previously aware of (who hasn\’t heard of NYPD Blue, even if you haven\’t seen it?) but I was unaware of his sordid and scary history which involved the 60s, a suspension from Yale, and a lot of drugs. Watching some of the supplemental material and footage from both seasons 1 & 2 (I haven\’t done 3 yet) and listening to Professor Milch, who does and did actually teach at the collegiate level I believe, I am reminded of a scene from the first episode where one Elsworth is speaking to the hard, subversive, complicated, swindling pimp Al Swearengen, proprietor of the Gem saloon and all around antihero.
Elsworth (whose first name is later revealed as \’Whitney\’) is reveling in his independence and his working \”fuckin\’\” gold claim, while making it evident that neither the U.S. government (who viewed the Deadwood settlement as illegal in its violation of treaty on Sioux territory) nor anyone else, including the Indians, had better interfere. Al says, \”They better not try it here\”, to which Elsworth replies, \”Goddamn it, Swearengen, I don\’t trust you as far as I can throw ya, but I enjoy the way you lie\”.
Swearengen famously gives a sly \”Thank you, my good man.\”
This is how I feel when listening to David Milch.
I don\’t believe the man is a liar or disingenuous, but I have a hard time taking his rambling erudition seriously. Like most professors, he seems to talk only to hear himself talk and prove how well read or learned or wise/sagey he really is. But I enjoy it! I would spend the rest of my life in college if I could afford it; I love listening to overeducated people make connections between the most unrelated things and make it sound as if they could write a doctoral thesis and/or bestselling novel and/or bestselling self-help book about it.
I\’d be foolish to deny that there is a vast amount of depth and symbolism in Deadwood. Different characters are case studies and representations of ethnic groups, classes, and societal positions, the historical account as a whole is embellished to serve the greater theme of \”chaotic society organizing itself around a symbol\”. It ties in the ideas that Milch finds fascinating, those being the connectedness of people and the loving scrutiny of America and her history. When you put something like this in the hands of a man made mad by drugs, gambling, other obsessive behaviors, extensive consumption of turn-of-the-century literature (Melville and William James being at the top of his list) and liberal leanings, it becomes unlike anything I\’ve heard of on television. And the man wraps it in so much BS that he convinces us the BS is really candy there to make the pill easier to swallow.
The show\’s real strength, like that of all the best shows, is that it is about people, their inability to exist without each other, and that community seen thrust into extraordinary circumstances. It was the same with LOST: a group of strangers forced into dependence on one another in a fanciful situation. Deadwood, being more historical, is thusly more realistic; how do people relate to one another on a personal level when they are also faced with decisions that will shape the society they wish to live in? How can you coexist with someone who, while perhaps personally likeable, conflicts with the aims you mean to achieve in the blank canvas that is a town unhindered by law and facing new opportunities with its annexation into the U.S.?
We see people with benign aims, like Langrishe, who wish only to make money off of prospectors and frontiersman in need of high entertainment. Langrishe goes about his work almost stealthily, freely moving between the many groups that emerge in the latter season of Deadwood. He poses no real threat either personally or pragmatically and so his position is unique. Contrast that with someone like Wu, whose aim is his own sphere of power but one sphere that is in abject confrontation with the ways and means of another (Heart/Wolcott\’s man Lee), even in so small a sphere as the Chinaman\’s Alley, brings about conflict. Not to mention his ethnic and cultural piece which is in total disagreement with the overwhelmingly White element of the town. So our connectedness is there even in hateful differences.
So Milch\’s \”lies\” infect and, whether feigned, genuine, or otherwise, shed a sparkling light on the storytelling possibilities of television. It seems rare that such literary finesse is applied to television; it was there in LOST but the writers/producers of LOST took more influence from graphic novels and high fiction and less from classical, Victorian work that is Milch\’s foremost expertise (like I said before, he often cites William James and Melville). These influences also apply nicely to the setting of Deadwood as it is a pseudo Victorian setting, meshing those formalities with the rough and tumble ways of the American frontier.
In short, it\’s really good and the extra element of \”lies\”, that is interpretation, provide more fuel for an already raging fire of storytelling and character development. If I\’d known tv could make me a more informed consumer of literature and a better writer, I\’d have started up on this brand of programming long ago.
Now, back to the salt mines of NaNoWriMo.