Deadwood, season one

I just finished watching the first season of Deadwood. I hadn’t heard a lot about it before, but recently a colleague recommended it, telling me he liked it more than Mad Men. I know he’s a big fan of Mad Men, so that was quite a compliment. I decided I should check it out.

The show takes place in the eponymous town in the year 1876. Deadwood is a gold-mining town that lies on the edge of the American frontier–in various senses. One sense is literal: it lies outside the United States, on disputed Indian territory, but everyone knows that this will soon change. It is also a booming town: we see it in the process of transforming from mining camp into a more “civilized” community. As a result, it’s full of frontier characters who aren’t fully at ease in this shifting environment. Many of the show’s story lines revolve around this basic tension.

Deadwood actually resembles Mad Men in many ways. Both shows are more character than plot-driven. Deadwood has a lot of fascinating, morally ambiguous characters: some historical, some not. Of these, the local brother owner, Al Swearengen, is probably the most interesting, although I also like the half-mad Reverend Smith a lot.

Another point of comparison between the two shows is the effort they put into getting the history right. I’m in less of a position to judge the accuracy of a depiction of mid-19th Century frontier America, but I can say that it looks authentic and convincing. (It’s a little like Gangs of New York in that sense, although the setting is obviously different.) Along with the visuals, another fascinating aspect of the show is the language. It’s rough and backwoods, as one would expect from such characters, but, at the same time, it’s strangely formal. It sounds right, but it’s also just enjoyable in its own right.

The first season has twelve hour-long episodes. The first few are mostly expository, showing us the lay of the land. After that, the show really takes off. My sense is that season one is, in fact, as good as Mad Men. I’m looking forward to seeing if the second season holds up.

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2 Responses to Deadwood, season one

  1. Josh says:

    Nathan –

    It’s a pretty interesting show isn’t it? Really sui generis – which is I think always a mark of something culturally worthwhile. The language is very unique – I’m not sure if it’s trying for realism or more for something that’s an intentional break from reality, meant to achieve some other purpose. I’ve got an English professor acquaintance who’s really enthralled with that aspect of the show. It’s like what Shakespeare might have sounded like if he had been raised in 19th century Wyoming.

    A random note about this show (not sure if it’s true) – I heard that the people who wrote it originally proposed doing a show focused on drug gangs in a post-industrial eastern seaboard city, but the HBO people told them they already had a show of that description in development (The Wire), and so then the writers decided to morph the concept into exploring the founding of a new city, rather than the decay of an old one. Oh for the good old days when HBO was airing Deadwood, The Sopranos and The Wire at the same time! That’s pretty amazing if you stop and think about it.

    Another more random note – I had a student whose last name was Swearingen last year, and it was always a point of amusement for me -“Swigin!” always came into my head.

  2. Nate says:

    Yeah, I’m not sure what to make of the language. The formality definitely comes across as artificial to our ears. But my sense is that, in historical terms, our post-60s culture is pretty uniquely casual in our public social attitudes. Many of the characters in Deadwood would never go in public without a hat. They all stand up when a woman enters the room. Even good friends like Seth and Sol maintain a certain reserve toward one another. It seems right that the language would also be more formal in those days. At any rate, whether or not it’s real, it’s definitely aesthetically effective.

    One thing I recently learned, from Wikipedia, is that the profanity has been modernized. Apparently the original plan was to use profanity from that period, but it sounded comical to modern ears and thus lessened the impact.

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