HBO shows how the west was reborn

New `Deadwood,' loaded with realism, gives classic western a shot in the arm

TV Preview

March 20, 2004|By Steve Johnson | Steve Johnson,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

While the really, really foul language in frontier times is the most immediately striking thing about David Milch's Deadwood, what becomes more important than the show's ability to make Tony Soprano sound like a choirboy is that Milch is telling a great story.

In the same way that The Wire showed there is an HBO way to update that staple of regular TV, the cop show, Deadwood (tomorrow night at 10) demonstrates that the western can be revitalized, too, with a dose of extreme realism.

The series is shot in the sepia tones familiar from quaint western photographs. But Milch, a longtime NYPD Blue executive producer, freshens the hackneyed genre by placing his tale of extreme situational ethics in a place thick with grit you won't recall from Gunsmoke.

The grime isn't only in the language - which Milch says is meticulously researched and a symbol of the bravado needed to survive in such a place - but in Deadwood's appropriately muddy streets, the characters' horrific personal hygiene, and the cutthroat means they use to battle for control of a mining settlement on Indian lands.

This is a formula for unceasing tension. Death is more prevalent than the gold in the streams and, as in the real West, even the most interesting characters can be eliminated at any moment. So it's all the more powerful when characters do rise above the environment. It feels equally heroic and stupid to see the hardware merchant Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) organize a posse to investigate a settler massacre that others would have been content to blame on Indians.

The two central characters here represent, more or less, the Wild West and its taming.

Bullock, based on a real-life figure, is a former Montana lawman come to Deadwood to make his fortune. His morality and his lawman's training intrude, but there is the nagging problem of his predisposition to violence, as well. Soon he is teaming up with Hickock to instill at least some order.

Representing chaos is Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), also drawn from history. He owns the Gem Saloon and brothel and the land Bullock wants to build a store on.

Swearengen works like a dog to keep and expand his empire, employing an army of dentally challenged flunkies who rob settlers and blame the Indians, set up sham gold-claim deals, and generally pull any swindle Swearengen's power will let them get away with.

It is, to be sure, a man's world. There's no Miss Kitty here, just a prostitute named Trixie (Paula Malcomson), whom Swearengen alternately seeks out for solace and beats to near-death, and the upper-crust opium addict Alma (Molly Parker), who struggles for self-control as her dandy of a husband tries to beat Swearengen at the gold-rush game.

The series is at once cerebral and visceral. Dead bodies are thrown to hogs. A man utters his last words with a bullet hole, literally, through his head. Swearengen is as fascinating as he is repellent. Yet nearly every moment has multiple layers of meaning.

Last fall's Carnivale, HBO's most recent try for a worthy successor to The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, dissolved under the weight of its own artfulness. It was beautiful, mysterious and, ultimately, maddening.

But in Deadwood, the cable channel's claim on television's richest dramatic territory once again pays off.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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