Shiny Shelf


Deadwood

By Stephen Lavington on 15 October 2004

Ooh hoo, that Lovejoy eh? Tink, Eric, Lady Jane, antiques, Suffolk. Bit of a laugh wasn’t it? All mullets, jeans and leather jackets on a fifty year-old man. What were they thinking?

Right, that’s got that unpleasantness out of the way, on to ‘Deadwood’, an ugly bruiser of a show with the fine pedigree of ‘NYPD Blue’ (both created by David Milch) but with such a ragged, flea-bitten and down-right ornery look to it, that I wouldn’t even risk considering the show house-broken. This is the carefully constructed intent: ‘Unforgiven’ the series, in a frontier town without law, in the prime of the American west. The overall result makes Sergio Leone look like Chris Columbus: every character is louse-infested and grimy, or slickly-oiled and evil, pickled in whisky, spewing cuss-words and shiftily sporting a hidden (or not so hidden agenda) – usually rooted in the purest manifestation of selfishness.

From a UK perspective, it’s still quite hard to work out the path of the show, beyond the inevitable climactic clash of two main characters – the “slimey limey” bar-owning Al Swaerengen and white-hat lawman turned hardware seller Seth Bullock. Swearengen is the Western manifestation of the gangster on the slide, the man who had and ran it all dealing with the inevitable encroach of civilisation into his domain. Bullock is the good man on the make – a true American, out investing in the Wild West. But this is all yet to come. Currently we are being introduced to a roster of characters and gradually uncovering exactly what makes them tick. The pace is perfectly judged and as the paths of the protagonists gradually begin to intertwine it is difficult not to become completely absorbed. Best to resist this though, as character arcs in Deadwood have a habit of coming to a sudden, and sticky, end. An apparently main player can sit in the limelight for the best part of an episode, cracking a slow smile and making comments that might appear to set-up weeks of plotlines then all too suddenly fall dead in a flash of gunfire. The richness of the writing, characterization and acting, and this fundamental unpredictability makes it a bracing and engrossing show, if only on the basis of trying to work out who’s taking the next trip to the cemetery.

Ironically the original broadcaster was HBO (no commercials) and the show is now on Sky, so the usual 45-min UK read of a US show is exchanged for a rather intensive 75 minute experience. This makes for four (so far), short-movie length episodes. But they have been far from dull, and are shot in the sort of expensive glossy style that conveys the filth and corruption of the frontier while still making for gorgeous TV.

And at the heart of this grotesquerie is Ian McShane playing Swearengen. He takes the all-too-brief cameo as gangland boss Teddy Bass from ‘Sexy Beast’ and ups the dead-eyed menace by about two hundred per cent. It’s a juicy role (Swearengen is a balls to the wall bad guy) and McShane makes the most of it, without resorting to pantomime scenery chewing. He’s pretty much star of the show, but the rest of the cast are not far behind. The show boasts some good names in strong roles -bearing in mind the probable low-life-expectancy of a ‘Deadwood’ character, we currently have appearances from Brad Dourif, Jeffrey Jones, Powers Boothe and Ricky Jay on a regular basis.

So stack this up with ‘NYPD Blue’, ‘The Sopranos’, ‘Six Feet Under’ and ‘The West Wing’. Another piece of well-written and crafted TV drama with an impressive ensemble cast. Just as well we in the UK have the likes of ‘Hustle’ and ‘Spooks’ eh? Oh. Right. Damn.


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By Stephen Lavington




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