Thursday, June 16, 2011

DEADWOOD (HBO) - SEASON ONE REVIEW (2004 - Created by David Milch)

(Review originally written on November 25, 2007.)


Johnny Cash said - "I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgement day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak, and love. And Mother. And God."

So I admit that I'm a sucker for westerns. Ever since I was little, my imagination has been captivated whenever exposed to the story of the lone underdog standing up for what he knew was right in the lawless world of the Wild West. I still enjoy reading biographies of historical western characters and watching the latest westerns that arrive in the theater (3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James finally bringing the genre back with a traditional exuberance after Brokeback Mountain).

And now I've just finished watching the first season of the HBO TV show Deadwood. I admit I was really surprised. I was cautious in beginning the show because the few reviews I could find of it from a Christian perspective were extremely negative saying that the show was very dark and overly generous in its portrayal of human sin. The philosophical nature of the show attracted me, however and, after the first couple episodes, I was hooked.

This show is the story of the settlements starting in the Black Hills of South Dakota during the gold rush. This gold rush resulted in the Americans violating their treaties with the Lakota/Sioux tribe and the subsequent death of General George Armstrong Custer. Deadwood started out as a mining camp full of prospectors, miners, adventure seekers, and outlaws - all looking for an easy way to find their fortunes. It thus becomes one of the most well known stories of the beginnings of a town in the wild west. The lawlessness, depravity, and chaos of the "state of nature" in which the settlement begins turns slowly to law and order, security, and civilization.

The main characters of the show are all historically based, and eventually other famous western characters show up as they did actually visit the town. The lawman and gunfighter, Wild Bill Hickok actually died there, shot in the back during a poker game. Keith Carradine does an excellent job playing him as a man (simultaneously world weary, kind, compassionate, violent and brutal) who is weighed down by his celebrity status and the knowledge that it's only a matter of time before one of these men, constantly trying to prove themselves by challenging him, eventually accomplish his death.

The acting in this show is phenomenal. Both tragedy and comedy are in every episode. Think William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and The Sopranos meet Tombstone and How The West Was Won. So many scenes and characters jump out at you like they walked right out of a Dickensian novel (the always scheming innkeeper Farnum; the joyful and childlike cripple, Jewel; the powerfully manipulative Swearengen; the kind but emotionally scarred, Doc Cochran). Different characters will think out loud to themselves in Americanized soliloquies that Shakespeare would have made Shakespeare proud.

Two contradictory things struck me about this show.

First, few Christians or conservatives will probably be able to enjoy it. The content is too offensive. Frequent obscenity, some nudity and sex, and graphic violence are all portrayed throughout the series. Most of the characters live out the results of their sin natures to the fullest extent possible. This little lawless western town allows a complete outlet for basic human depravity. Characters violently murder and steal from each other whenever they please. Almost all of the women in the town are prostitutes working in saloons or brothels, being used and taken advantage of by the men. The regular media has even questioned the amount of foul language in the show. It's every other word for some of the characters. This is a dark story. I cannot recommend this show to most of my friends and family.

Second, the Christianity in this show is alive and real. In fact, I can't say that I have ever seen a TV show before where Christianity showed up with so much light shining brilliantly out of the darkness. In a world filled with sin and despair, Christian characters appear in the town. Reverend Smith (based on the real and historical first Methodist circuit-riding preacher who started ministering in Deadwood) is not the typical Hollywood portrayal of the Christian. This is even more ironic given the fact that he actually does go insane (also historically based). Smith is immediately the kindest, warmest, and most conscience driven character - and his face lights up with joy whenever he is given the opportunity to talk about the gospel. Half of his dialogue, even when he is so sick that he doesn't make any sense, is simply nothing more than quoting relevant Scripture. His effect on some of the most morally corrupt characters on the show is one of the most important parts of the story. Swearengen is at his most vulnerable, good, and human when in the Reverend's presence.

"Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted, to understand, than to be understood, to love, than to be loved ..."
- Reverend Smith

The Christian worldview is fought for by numerous characters who, though morally flawed, turn out to be the real good guys, in spite of immediate viewer expectations. Wild Bill Hickok is portrayed as a principled, self-sacrificing hero. You can feel the hunger for justice in the conscience of Seth Bullock (historically a Rough Rider and friend of Teddy Roosevelt) as he realizes that part of what he believes being a man means taking the stand for right and wrong that no one else is willing to take. Doc Cochrane seems gruff and confused on the surface, but proves to be one of the show's most loving and caring characters as he constantly puts everyone else before himself. Even Calamity Jane, drinking and swearing herself into almost retardation as she grieves, shows kindness and sacrifice in her actions, even if her actions are in spite of her words.

"Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh."
- Al Swearengen

During the Season finale, when Doc Cochrane carefully explains to God that he is sorry he feels pain when he kneels in prayer because it means that he doesn't pray like he should, and then proceeds to utter the most heartbreaking prayer I've ever heard on television, I couldn't help but being dumbfounded that this was on what I had been told was one of the more morally corrupt TV shows around. Christians usually dislike HBO. And often for good reason. So how does this happen? Why was a show made that portrays all the offensive sinful things that offend Christians and conservatives and then also portrays real redemption, love, self-sacrifice, and the transforming power of Christianity in a dark and evil world? I really don't know how this happened. But I suppose it happened because of a man named David Milch.

It certainly seems like the sort of thing that Johnny Cash would appreciate. A gritty, hard as nails, realistic Western tale of sin and salvation, good guys and bad guys, right and wrong, law and chaos - and of how justice, love, righteousness, and the belief in God are the only hope that corrupt human beings have of ever being redeemed from their sinful, inhuman, and total depravity - kind of like some stories in the Bible.

I wouldn't say to not watch this show if you are easily offended. Instead, don't even watch this show if you are only sometimes offended. This is because your taking offense at seeing actors swear up a storm, pretend to have sex, or bloodily and graphically pretend to cut each other's throats will obstruct your view of the moral tale the story is trying to teach. Being offended won't let you wonder at Swearengen's tears, or Jewel's childlike patience and joy in the presence of evil, or Reverend Smith's love, or Doc Cochrane's sacrifice, all against and in the midst of impossible odds and complete darkness. Instead, stick only with the Shakespeare plays where the swearing is in English too old to understand, or Charles Dickens novels, where the sin is described in a fashion still considered genteel enough by the standards of old Victorian England.

Otherwise, if you are (what's the word they use now? oh yeah) "desensitized" enough to where you are not often offended, then you might be captivated by this particular Western. You might find yourself forced to ask questions that most TV shows don't ask of you. What is it that is necessary to create law and order in the midst of the chaos of human depravity? If something devastating happens that causes suffering, does that mean it was God's will? Are thieves and murderers at all capable of changing? Is it possible to ask of God that something you believe is wrong would not be His will? Is justice even possible if government does not exist? What do you do in a situation where government does not exist? When does law and justice demand being willing and able to kill? And if love and compassion are real, what actions are they really proved by? How is redemption for the lost, the corrupt, the poor, the needy and the sinner even possible?

Things to think about. Some stories help you think about them more than others. Deadwood is one such story.

See also this fascinating article from The New Yorker - The Misfit: How David Milch got from "NYPD Blue" to "Deadwood" by way of an Epistle of St. Paul

"Falstaff illustrated the purest form of the idea of expression as joy ... Falstaff was a character who had done everything. And whose capacity for language, the exuberance of whose expression was such that every experience, in the method of its expression, ultimately had a joyful effect. For me that was and continues to be — You know, people say that my writing is dark. And for me it’s quite the opposite. It sees light in darkness and it doesn’t try to distort darkness. The essential thing is that the seeing itself is joyful."
- David Milch

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