Monday, August 28, 2006


Elegy for Deadwood

"Change ain't looking for friends. Change calls the tune we dance to."
Al Swearengen

By Edward Copeland
Alas, all Deadwood fans will have to start learning to dance today without David Milch's great Western in our lives and on HBO. Sure, it seems likely that sometime next year, they'll throw us a bone with two, two-hour movies to try to wrap up the story, but it's still sad to imagine that there won't be any more full-fledged seasons of Deadwood. Without giving away anything that transpired in the final episode, it seemed anticlimactic to me. The tension that had been building over the past few episodes didn't seem to lead to a rousing finish and I guess now it can't. It took me awhile to warm to Deadwood. For about the first four or five episodes of the first season, I'd ask myself after each new episode, "Did I like that?" Robin Weigert's performance as Calamity Jane drove me up the wall. Then, suddenly — and I wish I could pinpoint the exact moment — it won me over.

Ever since, the series has just grown better and better in my mind. Weigert also seems to have toned down her performance to the point that not only could I tolerate her I even grew to — gasp — like her. While it's true, this season did have its flaws — I think it was trying to keep too many balls in the air at once to do justice to them all and some stories didn't seem to amount to much. Was there really a point to the brief appearance of the Earp brothers (Gale Harold, Austin Nichols) in the camp? Aunt Lou (Cleo King) and Odell (Omar Gooding) showed promise, but that too seemed to go nowhere. I'm still not seeing why we needed to spend so much time on Langrishe (Brian Cox) and his acting troupe, but I suspect we would have if we'd been given the fourth season we deserve. I also bet truncated, two two-hour movies won't be enough time to justify their presence either, but hopefully Milch will prove me wrong.

The star of season 3 though was undoubtedly Gerald McRaney and his portrayal of the frightening George Hearst. Who knew that the star of Major Dad and Simon and Simon had this great a performance in him or that he'd give the incomparable Ian McShane a run for his money as the series' best performance? It takes a lot — great writing and great acting — to create a character that makes Al Swearengen quake. When Trixie (Paula Malcolmson) gave Hearst a flesh wound last week, it was such a vicarious thrill because Hearst had earned that and more. Historical accuracy be damned — I don't care that he was a real person who didn't die in Deadwood, someone should have whacked this prick a long time ago. In the finale, McRaney got one of the best lines when he tells Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) that he's having a conversation "that only I can hear."

One aspect of Deadwood that I feel always gets short shrift is its humor — and there was plenty this season, such as Steve the drunk (Michael Harney) and his adventures with the horse. At times, the many scenes involving him seemed like a distraction, but it was all worth it to see Franklin Ajaye as the Nigger General cart Steve in his vegetative state around to voting booths and bars, even to the amateur night put on by the Langrishe troupe, perhaps the best use of the theater company's story that appeared all season. Of course, any scene involving Al and Wu (Keone Young) always was good for some laughs, but for me there was a breakout star other than McRaney that really took flight this season and that is Ralph Richeson as Richardson, E.B. Farnum's slow-witted man Friday. I don't know where they found Richeson, but the expansion of his role this season has been a delight, from his constant playing with the antlers on the walls of the hotel to his delivery of messages for Farnum and finally his display of juggling prowess on amateur night which Farnum unfortunately cut short. William Sanderson's Farnum always is amusing, but Richardson is hysterical and the finale gives him some great final scenes. Cheers to Richeson and Richardson. I may miss them most of all.

Of course, I exaggerate — because one actor and character single-handedly secured my interest in this show and held my interest from beginning to end, whether he was inflicting brutality, being brutalized, fighting kidney stones or even singing a solitary song with no one around. Ian McShane's Al Swearengen is one of the most brilliant fusions of actor and character in the history of television. The finale even gave him one last, albeit brief, monologue to the box containing the Indian's head. Coming the day after the Emmys, it remains an outrage that McShane didn't receive an Emmy nomination for the first season and a bigger one that he didn't win for season two. Don't fuck it up next year you Academy of Television Arts & Sciences cocksuckers — and you better remember Gerald McRaney as well. Deadwood will be missed — in fact I feel like Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) does in this photo following his stabbing by Andy Cramed (Zach Grenier), the gambler he left to die in the woods but who survived and came back as a vengeance-seeking minister at the end of Season 2.

Thank goodness The Wire returns soon — because both shows, while residing in different centuries and universes, share one aspect in common — they challenge the audience. You can't be casual viewers of either show and you have to pay attention to keep up with what each show is doing, be it in the florid language of Milch's denizens of Deadwood or the varied vernaculars of Baltimore. Both simply are the best in television drama. I may need to seek Doc (Brad Dourif) to treat my illness I've contracted from the premature demise of Deadwood, assuming Doc doesn't succumb to TB first (and where the hell was he in the last episode anyway?) As much as I love The Sopranos, it doesn't require the close attention Deadwood and The Wire do as both series keep upping the stakes and growing more complex and satisfying with each passing season. The Sopranos really hasn't surpassed the plateau of excellence it reached back in season 3. On top of that, The Sopranos has sapped the goodwill of its fans with its overindulgent hiatuses. Following the insanely long break between season 5 and season 6 of The Sopranos, the quality of the show couldn't overcome the interest lost during its long absence. I still will eagerly await its conclusion next spring, but I don't think I'll miss it the way I will Deadwood or, eventually, The Wire. In fact, as a precaution, I'm beginning to build a time machine so I can bring Trixie and her derringer back to try to influence the folks at HBO to come up with another season of Deadwood or, at the very least, to ensure that David Simon gets the fifth and final season of The Wire he has in mind.

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I really miss DEADWOOD.
I was AMAZED by GERALD MCRANEY's, George Hearst, but I DID always know he had it in him. He can do anything given the right material.
They'll never be another TV show quite like DEADWOOD, or another actor quite like MCRANEY.
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