Wednesday, December 7, 2016

What's Geekin' Me Now: Deadwood

With the holiday season coming on, I recently took advantage of Amazon allowing monthly Prime Membership pricing to sign up and get free shipping for my Xmas shopping.  As such, of course, I found I significantly expanded my streaming options for as long as I continued on.  My first act, naturally, was to binge three seasons of HBO's fabled Deadwood in the first week.

Deadwood is a series which ran from 2004-2006 originally, and which I've had recommended to me several times over the years. It's a fairly loose chronicle of the titular settlement from 1876 on, which gives the full HBO treatment to the motley assortment of gamblers & gunmen, prospectors & Pinkertons, and whores & entrepeneurs who come to settle in the camp, looking for escape or opportunity. Deadwood is an illegal boomtown over the border in Sioux treaty lands, and at a deeper level, the show is also a study in how civilization slowly, inevitably evolves from the anarchy of the wilderness. And above all, I've found it to be quite a good yarn.

The nominal star of the proceedings is Ian McShane in an astounding star turn as Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon and driving force behind much of the camp's schemes and politics. Swearengen is many things - a swindler, a pimp, a showman, and a murderer. Above all, he is a steely-eyed. silver tongued force of nature, who can chill with a single look and kill with a word. As he says when staring down Western legend Wild Bill Hickock in one episode, "I got a healthy operation here, and I didn't build it brooding on the right or wrong of things..." In this role of a lifetime (probably), McShane changes hats effortlessly throughout each episode, being at turns charming, sympathetic, practical or menacing. The viewer is never quite sure whether to hate or root for the man, and in the end, often one ends up doing both at the same time, feeling vaguely queasy about it the whole time.
Swearengen's two main foils (through the first couple of seasons anyway) are part-time lawman Seth Bullock (played by Timothy Olyphant) and rival saloon owner Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe).

Bullock is hard-nosed former lawman trying to start a simpler life in a lawless land. But as things happen, his temper and his overzealousness to do the right thing land him into a series of conflicts throughout the series. He's introduced in the first scene on his last day as a Montana sheriff, lynching his own prisoner to stay one step ahead of an angry mob, thus ensuring "due process" is served (or some ass backwards variant thereof). From there, things just seem to get trickier. Olyphant brings a simmering intensity to the role that endears him to the audience as the main protagonist, and this feels like the best work I've ever seen of his. Tolliver is, by contrast, a cool-headed schemer and pragmatist, and Boothe is perfect in the role as the owner of the Bella Union - the Gem's more upscale rival. It's eminently helpful of course that Boothe also has a grin reminiscent of a viper waiting to strike.

The real revelation watching the series, to me though, was the singular performance of geek movie mainstay Brad Dourif, as the camp's harried Doc Cochran. It seems like it would be all too simple to let this role devolve into caricature or perhaps a cliched pastiche of drunkenness, like Doc Boone in the blueprint Western Stagecoach. Instead, Cochran is at once competent, intelligent, empathetic and politically savvy - something one simply never sees in a portrayal of a period sawbones, as far as I can remember. Dourif gives Cochrane a restrained passion and grit that simply make the show better every single time he is on the screen. I actually looked up whether Dourif had been nominated for anything for his performance, and indeed found a Best Supporting Actor Emmy nod from 2003. Seems he lost to Michael Imperioli strangling his girlfriend in The Sopranos though. What can you do?

Far too many other fascinating characters abound in the series - like Wild Bill Hickock, Reverend Smith, or Wu the "Celestial" - to list and appreciate every one. But of course, no attempted review of Deadwood would be complete without mention of Robin Weigert's portrayal of Calamity Jane. She rides into camp with Wild Bill in the first episode, a whirlwind of whiskey and vulgar trashtalk. With all the other women on the show seemingly divided between the stiff "ladies" of the encampment and the hardscrabble prostitutes of the saloons, Jane's foulmouthed savant straddles the lines between these and the men of Deadwood to act as a sort of psychotic chorus moving from scene to scene. I was actually initially quite annoyed by the continuously muttered or shouted onslaught of her "inner" monologue, until it suddenly occurred to me that it's probably much how I sound to the UGG-wearing passersby whenever I try to shop at Target. Afterwards, I found her far more sympathetic and entertaining to watch.
(For what it's worth, I'm sure I'd be poorly suited to life in Deadwood, personally.  Not because of the obvious lack of plumbing or electrical amenities, but rather simply because I couldn't drink that much whiskey in a day and not want to die.)

Wild Bill draws
Most reviewers of Deadwood will point to the language of the series as one of its signature strengths - often invoking words like "Shakespearean". And it's true that most of the characters seem to slip easily back and forth between an almost poetic cadence and a street-level kind of crudity. That said, I tend to think, personally, ascribing too much gravity to the language is an oversimplification of what makes it so good. With the exception of the various vulgarities which were updated to remain contemporary (as curses like "tarnation" no longer hold the same verbal impact they once may have), the language otherwise feels very true to the place and period depicted to me. The blend of thoughtful, flowery speech is no more arcane than dialogue one might hear in HBO's John Adams for example, and being mixed liberally with the sort of plain talk one might also expect in the Black Hills in 1876 brings it very appropriately much more down to earth. If anything, I think it's not a matter of syntax, so much as the fact that it's just damn good writing and dialogue - poetic not in the style of Shakespeare, but rather in the style of The West Wing or other Sorkinian dramas.

If there are any major criticisms of Deadwood, I believe some definite pacing issues arise in the third season, along with some (regrettable) character arcs - or lack thereof.  Boothe's Tolliver is largely sidelined to an afterthought as the main conflict unites the camp (to a vague degree) against miner robber baron George Hearst.  Finally, the series ends not with a bang but a whimper, though the finale wasn't as bad as, say, the Seinfeld finale.  It's perhaps much closer to the 1991 finale of Twin Peaks - eliciting more of a "Wait, what?  Huh..." response when the last credits finally roll.  The possibility of at least one and possibly two feature films to tie up loose threads has been floated numerous times by the series' creators, so we can only hope. 

WARNING TO GMS:  Under no circumstance is it recommended that you attempt to reskin Deadwood for your own RPG group.  Even if your game is set on a frontier, or perhaps even a "Wilderland" do not attempt to use plots from the series as story hooks to engage your players, or invest any time or energy working to  adapt the settlement or its characters into a lively community of NPCs.  Your players will choose to ignore every hook you give them and will decide just to go rafting instead.  

Because they are a bunch of hooplehead c*cks*ck*rs.  

And they'd fit right in in Deadwood.