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Deadwood. A nice place to visit…

By Bert Ehrmann
2006-06-05 – For this column, I had originally planned to wax poetic on the television series Deadwood. But as the saying goes, plans are easy; it’s the execution where things get difficult.

Admittedly, Deadwood is one of my favorite shows on television. I called season two one of the best shows of ’05 and season one THE best television show of ’04.

Originally slated to return in March, Deadwood was relegated to a summer run when HBO decided to premiere their new polygamy show Big Love instead.

Season one follows the town of the same name located on the western frontier in the Dakota Territory. Run by crime-boss Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), Deadwood exists without laws or other governmental entity to disrupt Swearengen’s crime-ridden hamlet. But Deadwood does not exist in total anarchy; a sense of ghoulish order pervades the camp even if laws do not. Swearengen enforces order through murder, bribery and corruption – anarchy is bad for business!

Season two opens with the literal encroachment of civilization to Deadwoood, when telegraph poles begin sprouting up outside town. Loosing a bit of its “wild” side, the town gets a sheriff when Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) is coerced into the job.

In my original plan for this article, I meant to show all the ways that Deadwood smashes the status quo of most network television shows. And though I still believe this to be true, I found it insanely hard to come up with reasons that didn’t contradict one and other.

Some of the notes I wrote out before starting this article had ideas like Swearengen equaling disorder and Bullock order. But that’s not quite true. Though Swearengen might use murder as a means to an end, there was a certain sense of order in the camp when he ran it – bills were paid and disputes settled. And though Bullock might represent a more traditional sense of “law and order,” both men managed to bring order to town.

Deadwood 1, Bert 0.

Another idea I had was that the women of Deadwood are second-class citizens. The character of Alma Garret (Molly Parker) is a wealthy widow who inherits a prosperous gold mine. Yet the morals of the time are so restrictive that she’s unable to walk down the street without the accompaniment of a man, even if that man is an employee of hers.

And that’s true until I factored in Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert). Jane drinks, gets into fights, dresses like a man and curses up a storm. And if anyone ever insinuated that she needed to be on the arm of a man to walk down the street would probably get a knuckle sandwich from Jane.

Deadwood 2, Bert 0.

The idea that Deadwood be a portrayal of how America was born —in frontier towns no modern person would want to venture into —probably holds true. We like to think of old western frontier life like Little House on the Prairie, yet I have the suspicion that most towns were born like Deadwood; in the mud and with hard labor.

Deadwood 2, Bert 1.

One last idea I had was the idea of an “old Deadwood” and a “new Deadwood,” once again represented by the Swearengen and Bullock characters. Swearengen helped build the camp, literally cutting down trees to begin the construction of Deadwood. Bullock, on the other hand, just wants to run his hardware store in peace and has plans to bring a bank into town.

Swearengen is more a pioneer than Bullock. I get the sense that eventually Swearengen will move on leaving Deadwood for the next muddy lawless town.

Deadwood 2, Bert 2.

I think that’s what I like about Deadwood – it’s a hard series to pin down. The stories are miles from formulaic fare and don’t unfold like one would expect. Except it’s all these factors make it hard to write a column on the series. Oh well, I guess if I wanted to write “easy” columns I could start covering Without a Trace.

Season three of Deadwood premiers on HBO Sunday, June 11 at 9:00 P.M.