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Monday, January 28, 2013


As with Battlestar Galactica, I watched this series mostly over the winter break, when very little of interest is on regular TV (most shows are on extended hiatus).  I had been meaning to watch this series for years, for basically 3 reasons - it has a devoted cult following, it got strong critical acclaim, and Timothy Olyphant.

I had a hard time getting into this series - the first few episodes are uneven in tone and don't introduce the main characters as strongly as other beloved series like The Wire and Battlestar Galactica.  But about halfway into the first season, they seemed to sort out some of their difficulties, and I got more caught up.
There's a lot to like - the actors are wonderful and colorful. The evocation of the place and time is so authentic and fun. But I have a bunch of complaints.

Chief among them is the Seth-Alma relationship. Of course I'm a total shipper, but this relationship was such a cheat. They got the viewer completely invested in the couple and then rather abruptly tore them apart. That was, of course, rather inevitable (since Seth was married) and is pretty standard stuff in TV drama. My objection is that the two pretty much go their separate ways subsequently. There's a couple of tense scenes between Alma and Mrs Bullock, but that's about it. This just totally violates a cherished audience expectation - that the torn apart couple will openly yearn for each other and surreptitiously reunite amid much guilt. But not in Deadwood - Seth especially seems to make his peace with the new arrangement with a minimum of emotion. No fair! All I'm asking for is one furtive kiss a la Brokeback Mountain or even an agonized brushing of hands a la The Age of Innocence. C'mon - you can see how it's done in plenty of films - give us something!

Another complaint I had is that the show is just downright depressing. I had just finished watching all 5 seasons of The Wire, which I adored. That is not exactly a feel good series, but it somehow manages to strike a much better balance, with some humor and some hope. This series is pretty relentless. People are just murdered and murdered and murdered. And most of the characters seemed generally miserable. It might be accurate, but it's not that fun (for me) to watch. I especially disliked the way female characters were regularly killed.

Another frustration I had was the way they constantly introduced new characters. This is probably accurate, in a boom town, but there's no way a series can effectively juggle that many story lines. Again, I found that although The Wire introduced a number of new characters each season, they kept the main characters front and center, and managed a better balance overall.

Case in point is the character of Saul. He was so interesting, and John Hawkes is a wonderful actor. But other than a few scenes each season, the series did very little with him. He was often limited to reaction shots, which is just a criminal waste of the actor.

The bad guys got worse and worse as the series progressed. Al started out mean and cold, but developed  a much more nuanced persona, to the benefit of the series. But he was replaced by increasingly sociopathic, one-dimensional, evil cretins (first Cy and then Hearst). I thought the series would have been better if the bad guys had been more nuanced and therefore more complex and more interesting.

Of course the foul language went overboard. The series was famous for this - even though the "f" word was not widely used at the time, they included it to create the right scatological tone. But it was too much. And it wasn't just that word - it was pretty dirty in general. Of course cable shows think they have to go that way, because they can.  I was embarrassed more than once, knowing that the kids could overhear the show, even though they were in the other room.  Not just the endless use of "cocksucker" - several other colorful phrases got a serious workout as well.

And the language in general was a barrier. Some characters, especially Al, but others too, spoke in a convoluted style that could be fun, but just as often made an entire scene hard to understand. There were times when I really had no idea what was going on, between the myriad characters, sometimes convoluted plots, and impenetrable language; it could get kinda frustrating.

The series only ran for 3 seasons (cable seasons - 13 episodes per), but a fourth had been planned and unexpectedly never materialized, much to the consternation of fans. The final episode of Season 3 is definitely structured as a cliff hanger rather than a wrap-up. (Even though I knew this, it contributed to my general frustration.)

I really wanted to love this series, but instead I was left with pretty mixed feelings. The acting is wonderful and I look forward to seeing everyone in other shows and movies. But it won't stick in my head or heart the way that other series will.



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