Sunday, May 08, 2005

Deadwood rules

This season “Deadwood” has hit its stride. It’s gotten as good as “The Sopranos.” The first season was entertaining, but had a kind of leaden earnestness that didn’t wear well. It was structured around a brewing clash between good and evil – the latter represented by Al Swearengen, the Machiavellian saloon owner (brilliantly played by Ian McShane), and the former by upright, uptight sheriff Seth Bullock. Both of them real historical personages, interestingly.

But for some reason the clash never came off dramatically – except if you count them beating the crap out of each other in this season’s first episode. Maybe the writers realized the Manichean approach was a dead end, especially if you want to go on for several seasons. This season the two are reluctant allies, and with “outside interests” intent on buying out and annexing Deadwood, Swearengen has become a kind of benevolent town elder with a vision for the future, defending the camp’s interests from those more powerful and even sleazier than himself. He doesn’t mind slitting throats if it that advances those interests, I assume, but he hasn’t even had anyone killed yet and there are only two episodes to go. Bullock, meanwhile, has spent the entire season dealing with an awkward, and lately tragic, series of personal problems. He remains pretty one-dimensional, and his role in the whole frontier drama is still undefined. They ought to find something for him to do - the real Bullock was a very interesting figure who helped create Yellowstone National Park and was a close friend to Teddy Roosevelt.

All this is leading to one observation – creator David Milch has let his sense of humor temper the drama and the show is better for it. Black and macabre it may be, but it lets him and his writers mine the characters and the desperate setting in interesting ways. The show's arc recalls some of his early “NYPD Blue” episodes where Sipowicz – at that time, an unpredictable and troubling character somewhat like Swearengen (though more conflicted) – clashes with Fancy, his black boss, over race. Like Bullock, Fancy was upright, progressive, and kind of dull. The tension between the two built for a while, and we wondered what would happen when it bubbled over. But when it finally did, it was played for laughs – the essential absurdity/comedy of two middle-aged men going for each other’s throats won out. And that’s exactly what happened with Swearengen and Bullock – they beat the crap out of each other, and it was amusing, and then the conflict was over and the show got down to business.