The remarkable first season ofDeadwoodrepresents one of those periodic, wholesale reinventions of the Western that is as different from, say,Lonesome Doveas that miniseries is from Howard Hawks'sRio Bravoor the latter is from Anthony Mann'sThe Naked … see full wiki
Hard on the heels of the cinematic, mystical Carnivale, HBO pull out a gritty, puke-, blood, cuss- and mud-soaked western, tracing in quasi-historical fashion some of the days of Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Seth Bullock and others in a pre-confederated gold prospecting camp called Deadwood, in what is nowadays Dakota. Despite their manifold differences there is a commonness of sepia tone, and both plumb equally cavernous philosophical depths: Intellectually, Deadwood is a meditation on anarchy in which Hobbesian pessimism is tested but falsified: in Deadwood, decent men (and strong women) prevail despite the poor odds - as long as you are prepared to be openminded about exactly what might count for decentness, at any rate.
The first episode takes a while to catch fire - the brutalilty and nastiness is heaped on, and the narrative is spent establishing the hard-man credentials of most of the cast, and the dope-addled naivete of Alma Garrett and her patsy-written-all-over-him husband, fresh from New York to seek their fortune in the hills with the rest of the lowlife.
But soon some things become clear. Primarily among them, Ian McShane - once BBC's loveable rogue antique dealer Lovejoy (I kid you not) has a peach of a part as the dastardly, but all the same loveable, Gem Saloon owner Al Swearengen, and he utterly nails it. A swear engine he certainly is - although matched in his cussatorial enthusiasm by the entire rest of the cast, McShane bullies, and cajoles, and wisecracks his way through the series with the experienced occular twinkle of a life-long loveable rogue, every appearance on the screen an utter joy to behold.
McShane is perfectly cast - but is aided and abetted by a terrific supporting cast and a sublime script. Sublime, that is, if you don't mind the dictionary definition of "a stupid or unpleasant person" sprayed around. If repeated reference to ladies' nether regions, rendered agriculturally, isn't your bag, then nor is this show, by the way. But the blue language is matched by the inventively archaic dialogue which is simply wondrous, particularly in McShane's capable hands. One tip: the dialogue is rendered quickly at times and, as a single word is not to be missed, I found it useful to have the subtitles permanently on!
Elsewhere the characterisation is beautifully played, with a succession of great double acts: Robin Seigert's Jane to Dayton Callie's Charlie Utter; William Sanderson's EB Farnum to Molly Parker's Alma Garrett, but mostly the fulcrum around which all relationships, dramatic impulse and sypathy revolves is the marvellous Al Swearengen.
The production values are top notch, and if there were a weakness, it would be Timothy Olyphant's somewhat effete Seth Bullock: attempting the strong silent treatment, but not really pulling it off: A hard job, in any case, when everyone's rooting for Al.
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