Picking up Deadwood
by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
June 22, 2009 – 15:43
One of the challenges of researching contemporary television narrative is time – it simply takes too much of it to watch everything that should be watched. Coupled with my day-to-day responsibilities of teaching, chairing, fathering, reading the internets, and having a life, watching TV can often fall low on the to-do list. (I know I’m garnering tremendous sympathy about this…) And thus my attempt to grapple with the trend of narrative complexity in television storytelling has some blindspots, shows that I know I should watch but haven’t yet.
One of those major texts is Deadwood, the Western that most critics put in the holy trinity of HBO David-helemed masterpieces along with The Wire and The Sopranos. My colleague Chris Keathley taught the first season as a serialized text in this spring’s intro Aesthetics of the Moving Image course, reporting that students were truly enamored of the show. And two of my favorite online TV bloggers are writing about the show this summer: Myles McNutt after watching for the first time, and Todd VanDerWerff as a return to his favorite series. So with all of that inspiration, I’ve tackled the first season of the show over the past few weeks – spoilery commentary beneath the fold.
First let me contextualize my criticisms with the caveat that Deadwood is certainly a great show, in the upper echelon of everything on television or in the cinema in the past decade. But within that rarified realm, I must admit some disappointment. In large part this is due to my own contexts, taste, and immediate comparisons.
I generally have been watching the show late at night, after my wife & kids are asleep; thus my attention is dulled and it is too easy to lull me into a doze without a compelling narrative to hook me. And as Myles notes, Deadwood is almost plotless at times, and many of the plots are sufficiently predictable as to not generate suspense or intrigue – for instance, I saw Bullock’s fate to be both in Alma’s bed and wearing a badge as inevitable. So a few times, the slow pacing and texture produced fatigue that distracted me from the series – in this way, the show that most resembles Deadwood is Mad Men, another deliberate period piece that I found too mannered to get into.
The period aspect is also a drawback for me – the Western is a genre that I generally care little about, aside from a few standout films that I love (My Darling Clementine, The Searchers, and Unforgiven pop to mind). So while the premise of a serialized revisionist Western is intriguing, the way it tweaks the genre and plays with actual history has little appeal to me.
Finally, I spend the spring revisiting The Wire with my class (more on that soon!), so the comparisons between these two series are hard to avoid. And they certainly bear some similarities – both are sprawling ensemble pieces more about a place than a character, portraying the gray areas between law and crime, and reveling in dialogue that straddles realism and profane poetry (wouldn’t you love to hear a dialogue between Al Swearingen and Jay Landesman?). But The Wire’s world and genre are both more compelling to me, and I find the show’s plotting to present the perfect balance between a measured pace and engaging forward momentum – I wouldn’t say that The Wire produces suspense per se, but I find myself tremendously invested in what will happen next in a way that Deadwood never generated.
With all that being said, I found Deadwood to be alternately compelling and disengaging. When the show focused on the attempts toward and resistance to civilizing the town, I found myself drawn in to the emerging political and commercial systems. But when it did try to tell a more conventional plotline, I found the show less engaging – the Kristen Bell arc seemed completely designed to drive a wedge between Cy and Joannie rather than actually convey something about the world or create an interesting new character, and likewise the drug fiend plot seemed more mechanical than organic. The show could never really get a momentum going, as I kept feeling things kick into gear, and then drift away into semi-enjoyable but ultimately disengaging diversions into the town’s texture.
I would have been even more harsh before watching the finale last night – while the result of Bullock’s arc was not a suprise, I found the intensity of his decisions to sleep with Alma and become sheriff quite compelling. Similarly, Swearingen’s dual murders out of mercy and self-protection worked more for the effect of the performance than plot. I still find Swearingen’s charismatic anti-hero a bit troubling, especially in how abusive he is to the women of Deadwood, and fear that Milch’s brand of troubled masculinty that turned me off from NYPD Blue will dominate.
While it’s difficult to pull apart different elements of a program’s creative process, I’ve come away from the series feeling much more impressed with the acting and directing than the writing, even though David Milch gets all the credit for Deadwood’s greatness. I find the visual style outstanding, especially in the way it binds together the community through shots that connect different spheres and relationships. And nearly every performance is excellent, with Ian McShane as the obvious standout but William Sanderson’s E.B. Farnum and Brad Dourif’s Doc as somewhat more impressive given that they have less to work with. While the dialogue can be fun, and obviously the writing enables the performances and style, the inconsistency of plotting and pacing knocks Milch down a peg in my book.
Another comparison with The Wire that I find lacking involves the two series’s modes of meaning-making. The Wire is clearly a show with great social relevance, and it’s not hard to notice the arguments it makes toward understanding the state of the world. Deadwood also seems to traffic in social commentary, but it offers it more through symbolism and allegory. In part, that’s simply due to genre and period, as anything a Western has to say about today’s world needs to be expressed via indirect representation. But Milch’s tone seems to demand interpretation, with every character functioning as a symbol of something greater.
Todd sees this as a great strength, writing “Deadwood uses its microcosm as a symbol for the whole universe better than any other series.” Again it might be a matter of taste, but I much prefer my fiction to to be more literal than symbolic, with the greater resonances emerging within the storyworld rather than in reference to something outside of it. I find the internal parallels between characters and institutions of The Wire to be much more rich in significance and resonance than the more overt symbolic aims of Deadwood and The Sopranos. (Sure, Simon can be allegorical in The Wire, but it’s less weighty and portentous to comment on the Iraq War than the meaning of life, God, etc.) Ultimately the characters in Deadwood seem to work more as figures than people – compelling and entertaining figures, no doubt, but even though many are based on real people, they seem more designed than alive.
I find this comparison continues today between Breaking Bad and Mad Men – the former seems cut from The Wire’s cloth (albeit with a much tighter emotional and character focus), with the show focused on the micro-procedures of a budding criminal empire and the complex humanity of flawed people dealing with the day-to-day burdens of their lives. Mad Men (which I admit I have not seen much of) works more like Deadwood, looking backward at another era to Say Something Important about the world of today. And as I’ve made clear, the former is much more appealing to me.
So given all that, I’m torn whether to dedicate another 24 hours of viewing to the rest of Deadwood. I’ve heard some people say that season 2 is even better, but how is it better? Does it solve some of the plotting problems that troubled me? Or is it better in its symbolic weight? Any experience viewers want to weigh in, or argue with my take on the show?