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.