In academia, "deadwood" refers to a tenured professor who produces nothing, earns no grants, and teaches poorly; it denotes a person who consumes time and money and resources without contributing anything of value. I am unfortunate enough to know a professor like this: her research stinks, she never publishes anything, her lectures are rife with out-of-date and inaccurate material, and (to top it all off) she's a tyrannical egomaniac. Unfortunately, she conned someone into giving her tenure, so her department is stuck with her.

Although it's virtually impossible to fire a tenured professor, deans and department heads often try to "prune the deadwood" by lowering the person's salary (or refusing to raise it), repeatedly moving the person's lab or office, assigning the person to lots of menial administrative duties, and in general making the person's life uncomfortable enough that they want to leave. Of course, such people rarely get offers from other places, so they remain more often than not.

"I wouldn't trust a man who didn't try to steal a little." - Al Swearengen


A new dramatic television series produced by HBO, Deadwood is one of the few shows on television that I find the time to watch. Following on the blockbuster success of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, the hour long adult drama template was applied to a frontier gold rush setting, with very pleasing results. Critically acclaimed, the series also caused a minor stir in media channels because of its fabulously foul language. Considering the 1876 Gold Rush setting, full of prospectors, whores and purveyors of vice, it isn't out of place. Much like the Sopranos, foul language, violence and interpersonal conflict keep the plot rolling right along, and each of the vast array of characters is unique and compelling. While the historical accuracy of the cast of characters is questionable, the writers have used actual events and people from Deadwood, South Dakota's history, and its key claim to fame as the place famous gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok met his grisly end. The story of a rough and tumble town springing to life on the frontier, with all its over the top characters and events, makes for an entertaining hour of television every week. Exclusive to HBO, and re-syndicated in Canada on TMN, Deadwood airs Sundays at 10:00 PM.

Created by David Milch, famous for his previous work on "NYPD Blue" and "Hill Street Blues", the series has attracted a very accomplished cast, including television veteran William Sanderson, famous for his work on "Newhart", Actor Jeffrey Jones, Star Trek veteran Brad Dourif, and the stunning Canadian actress Molly Parker. A key to the success of the first season of the series is the brilliantly Machiavellian performance of Ian McShane, an amazingly skilled English actor who seems to have been born to play his role as seedy town boss Al Swearengen. Deadwood is rough, ugly and unabashedly historical. The warts of the past are on full display: racism, sexism, abuse of the handicapped, politically incorrect slurs and epitaphs, and extremely blue language all roll past as if they were everyday things, largely because they were.

SPOILERS! WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE

The year is 1876. General Custer has been routed at Little Big Horn, Rutherford B. Hayes is contesting the election for the Presidency, and gold is found in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The town of Deadwood is born, springing up over night on lawless Indian land. No law means no limits, and it attracts all sorts.

The Main Characters:

Seth Bullock, a grim faced ex-law man who is seeking his honest fortune in the hills, comes to Deadwood with his partner Sol Star to start a hardware store and stake their own claims. Timothy Olyphant plays Seth Bullock as a man who is trapped by his responsibilities, as he has elected to take care of his dead brother's family, who are traveling to join him in the town. Bullock has a past that seems to haunt him, and he is seldom happy.

Al Swearengen, the proprietor of the Gem Saloon, is an unabashed bastard. Born in Manchester, England, Al has parlayed his business skill and his eye for deception into a de facto position of town boss. The Gem is the hub of most of Deadwood's activity, and the heart of all of Al's shady business. Nickel whiskey and $5 whores call the Gem home, and Al racks in the dollars. Ian McShane was born to play Swearengen, the definitive bastard that you just have to love. Swearengen also gets the most memorable lines of any one in the show.

Brom and Alma Garret, New York socialites seeking fame and fortune on the frontier, are in way over their heads. Accustomed to the more civilized environs of the big city, the Garret's came to Deadwood after purchasing a plot of land that they come to think is worthless. Brom, played by Timothy Omundson, desperately tries to sell the claim, while his laudanum addicted wife Alma stands by her husband, genuinely lost in the wild frontier world. Alma Garret is played by Molly Parker, and her role as committed wife expands greatly as the season progresses.

Sol Star, Seth Bullock's Jewish partner in the Deadwood hardware business, came to the town to seek his fortune selling goods to the booming population. Sol is a consummate gentleman, and the perfect foil to Seth's slowly boiling temper. Played by John Hawkes, Sol looks to bring some civility to Deadwood, while making a few honest dollars.

Wild Bill Hickok, infamous gunslinger and famously bad gambler, comes to Deadwood as he comes to most frontier towns, looking for a poker table and some peace and quiet. Keith Carradine portrays Wild Bill as man tired of his reputation as a killer, but unwilling to back down from a fight.

Calamity Jane, Wild Bill's erstwhile companion, is as gruff and uncouth as it is possible for a person to get. Jane is a hothead, a drunk and a fighter. Robin Weigert gives Calamity Jane an edgy, sunburned and wild personality, and a close friendship with her kindred spirit Bill.

Charlie Utter, played by Dayton Callie, is the calm voice of the Bill/Jane friendship. More often than not, Charlie is the guy left to steer Wild Bill out of a jam. He is a slow talking kind man, with a hot temper if pushed too far.

Trixie, a whore from the Gem Saloon, is like many of the women who find themselves at the mercies of Al Swearengen: broke, lost and desperate. With no other path in the world, Trixie sells herself at the Gem, and finds a special place at Al's side. Her role in his schemes seem to be given out of a strange, unspoken love on Al's part. Trixie is played by Paula Malcomson.

E.B. Farnum is a world class weasel. Desperate to secure his place at the top of the social ladder, E.B. is hopelessly outclassed by master schemer Al. Acting as a middle man of sorts, E.B. acts only to curry favor with the locals, and runs the town's hotel and restaurant. Played by William Sanderson, E.B. is a man who is desperately waiting for the invention of Pepto-bismol.

Dan Dority, played by W. Earl Brown, is the bartender at the Gem and Al's number 1 thug. Dan knows his place and is happy to leave the scheming to his boss. When Al wants somebody dead, its Dan who is wielding the knife.

Doc Cochran, is the town's only doctor, and as such, he makes a fair trade keeping the whores at the Gem and the Bella Union in good health. Doc Cochran served in the Civil War, and his generally acidic nature is tempered by his genuine skill as a physician. The Doc played by Brad Dourif, and his snarling, bug-eyed ill humor is a joy to watch. He is one of the few people in town that is not afraid to tell everyone off, regardless of their stature.

Tom Nuttall runs a small saloon off the main street, and his quite happy to let his small clientele gamble away their hours at the poker table in the back of his joint. Tom has no grand designs, happy to run his small business off the beaten path. Played by Leon Rippy, Tom is particularly scared of Wild Bill Hickok, who takes a liking to his quiet poker table.

A.W. Merrick, a blowhard newspaper man played by Jeffrey Jones, comes to Deadwood to establish print shop. Merrick is an optimistic big city stuffed shirt, and he goes to great lengths to convince those around him that he is a man of education and grand ideas. He comes off as a buffoon, and his large waistline is often the topic of conversation. It is fortunate for Merrick that no competing papers have set up shop.

Reverend H.W. Smith, the town's self appointed preacher, is played by Ray McKinnon. Reverend Smith is a kind hearted gentle soul, and he wanders in a dreamlike fugue, seeking to save the souls of the teaming masses of outlaws in Deadwood. There is something not quite right about the Reverend, who grins and extols virtues politely in the face of overwhelming vice.

Jack McCall, famous murderer of Wild Bill Hickok, is played by Garret Dillahunt. Jack is a drunken, washed-up waste of a man who stares at the world with his scarred hooded eye. McCall is a bum who hangs around the camp, gambling his last dollar and shooting off his mouth at every opportunity.

Cy Tolliver, the first real competition to roll into town for Al Swearengen, came to Deadwood to setup a high class establishment called the Bella Union. Cy caters to a more sophisticated audience, offering up painted ladies and craps tables, over the run of the mill poker at the Gem. Powers Boothe plays the sneering Cy, the premier foil to Al's plans.

Joanie Stubbs runs the ladies at the Bella Union. The object of Cy's unwanted attentions, Joanie is unhappy in her roll as the lady of the house. She is looking for a way out from under Cy's thumb, but he isn't going to make it easy for her. Joanie is played by Kim Dickens.

Eddie Sawyer is a slick operator who runs the gambling tables at the Bella Union for Cy. A partner in crime for Cy, Eddie is Joanie's only real friend in the camp. Ricky Jay plays Eddie as a slick swindler who has a flare for cheating people, be they friend or foe.

Mister Wu, played by Keone Young, is the boss of the rough side of town. As the boss of the immigrant Chinese who have flocked to the town for work, Wu holds a position of some strength, and he operates a legitimate butchery business. He has a working relationship with Swearengen, who seeks Wu's services in "body disposal" from time to time. Wu's pigs are never too long without food.

The story so far:

Having watched most of Season one, I have pieced together a bit of a synopsis of the goings on. This is by no means complete, but it will ruin some of the better plot twists that have cropped up, so be warned.

A wagon train on the way to the new settlement is attacked by Indians, who proceed to kill all the settlers except for a young girl named Sophia. Sophia is found and rescued by Wild Bill, Calamity Jane and Charlie Utter while the town is forming up from tents. Jane takes the mute girl into her care, fawning on her.

Seth and Sol wheel and deal with Al Swearengen to get a plot to build their hardware store while Brom Garret seeks to relieve himself of his claim. Everyone turns up their noses at it, assuming it is worthless. Al has some murky connection to the deal, and arranges for Brom to met his end while prospecting the claim with Dan, Al's right hand man. Dan does his bit and tosses Brom to his death off a cliff while searching the claim. When he goes to inspect the body, Dan trips over a massive deposit of gold. Al has E.B. try to purchase the deed from the Widow Garret, who remains unaware of its worth. E.B. skims some of the money from Al's offer, and the hesitant Widow Alma enlists the aid of Wild Bill and Seth Bollock to help her see if the deal is worth it.

In the meantime, Sol and Bullock have built up their hardware business while Wild Bill gambled and drank his way across town. Loudmouth Jack McCall runs afoul of Hickok in a poker game, and plots his revenge. While gambling in Tom's Saloon, McCall shoots Wild Bill in the head and flees town. Bullock hunts him down and turns him over to the authorities for a trial, much to the disgust of Calamity Jane, who turns to the bottle for her solace. Sophia finds herself in the care of the Widow Garret, to whom Al Swearengen has sent Trixie to help with the child. Al seeks to curry favor with the Widow so she will sell him the claim, all while Trixie keeps her high as a kite, supplementing her laudanum habit with opium supplied by Al, by way of Wu. Trixie losses her nerve and confesses to Alma, while helping her care for Sophia and weaning Alma off the dope.

Meanwhile, Seth employs a prospector named Elsworth to survey the claim with him to see if it is worth the money. Elsworth discovers the gold, with some help from Dan. Bullock tells Alma not to sell. While the wrangling over the claim continued, Cy Tolliver came to town and opened the doors of the Bella Union, the Gem Saloon's first real competition. Al and Cy come to an unsteady truce, dividing up their respective vices. The Bella Union is not long in operation when an old friend of Cy's comes to town. Cy's friend, however, brings a plague of smallpox with him. Cy quickly has his friend taken out to the woods and left for dead when his fever flares up.

The smallpox outbreak rolls through the town and prompts a bit of civil organization, as lead by Al Swearengen. Riders are sent out for nearby forts where the vaccine is available, and a pest tent is set up. Jane happens upon Cy's friend who was left for dead in the forest and cares for him. Upon returning to the town, she is pressed into service by the Doctor in the pest tent, where she works beside Reverend Smith tending to the sick. Jane and the Doctor see that the Reverend is acting strangely, and he is struck by an epileptic fit. Seems that the Reverend is likely dying from a brain tumor, which slowly robs him of his sanity.

Riders come back with the vaccine not long after and the town rides out the plague. Meanwhile, a brother and sister team of grifters comes to town and tries to rob the Bella Donna. Caught in the act, Cy slowly tortures the pair while Eddie and Joanie watch, finally killing them. Joanie decides to try to leave and setup her own place, while Eddie struggles with the realization that his boss is a cold blooded murderer. Cy is in love with Joanie, and offers to fund her new brothel, but Joanie conspires with Eddie to steal the funds from Cy and operate on her own.

In the wake of a peace treaty brokered with Indians brokered after the Battle of Little Big Horn, the legislature in Yankton sends word that they are going to annex Deadwood and establish a government there. The specter of the law coming to town prompts Al Swearengen to setup a de facto governing committee which would be grandfathered into the new town government. E.B. is appointed Major, as his comical over reaching secures him the job. Bullock turns down the post of Sheriff while others are fit into roles. The messenger from Yankton also brings a message to Al. Seems a warrant for his arrest in connection with a murder in Chicago has followed him out west, and a fee of $5000 will make it go away. Al pays reluctantly.

After the bagman leaves for Yankton, a pair of opium fiends rob and kill one of Wu's couriers and steal his cargo. One of the addicts works for Al, and the other for Cy. Wu is furious, and demands the heads of both men. Al finds the robbers and consults Cy on who should be given up to the Chinese boss. Cy, who doesn't deal in opium, flatly refuses giving up his man to a "lowly Chinaman", so Al kills his man and keeps the peace with Wu. Cy's man returns with the story, and Cy uses the opportunity to fan the flames of racism in the camp, painting Al as a traitor for giving into to Wu's demands.

Al also finds he has trouble on the home front. Trixie, his erstwhile lover, has fallen for Sol Star. In addition, the bagman from Yankton returns, and the bounty for taking the taking care of the warrant on his head has increased.

The season finale for season 1 is set to air on June 13, 2004.


Now that Deadwood is apparently as dead as the title, and now that I've seen all three of what will apparently be the only three seasons ever made of this show, I thought it would be apt to try and tell you how magnificent I think this show is. I might go so far as to say it is the best thing I've ever seen on television. In fact, I would go that far if Season Three didn't have such an unsatisfactory ending. The last few minutes at the end of Season Two were so perfect and complete that I had the same expectations with Season Three. I feel quite sure that David Milch, the man behind the curtain of this wonderful creation, had big ideas for Seasons Four and beyond. Unfortunately, the viewing public seems to have had the same reaction as my wife. In her words, somewhere around the middle of Season Two, she said, "You go ahead and watch it. I'm just not that into it any more." I guess it shouldn't have surprised me that neither she nor enough other viewers would support something this far above the average entertainment option. Nothing I love this deeply seems to be appreciated in its own time, if ever.

When HBO first pulled the plug on this venture, there was a promise of two 2-hour episodes in order to let Mr. Milch tie up the story arc, but even that shallow promise of some sort of redemption seems to be waning as time goes on. I think it's safe to say that when I saw the last episode of Season Three the other day, that was the last new Deadwood show I'll ever see. And the world will be much the sadder for this. One day, when folks are smarter and more aware, they will watch these first three seasons and ask themselves, "Did the writer and director die? That could be the only explanation for the lack of further episodes of this marvelous story." That is, unless the future is the one Mike Judge predicts in Idiocracy (a horrible movie with a very funny beginning and a totally wasted and yet promising premise), in which case no one will ever be watching this show again. Ever. Because it is not for the uneducated or those with short attention spans. It is the closest thing to Shakespeare that I've seen on television since I, Claudius.

Allseeingeye lays out most of the characters for you in the other writeup here. He also summarizes the action of Season One. I can tell you that there are a few more characters who are introduced in the following two seasons, and there are other plot developments, but they are incidental to the acting and, most of all, the writing in this show. When the very language used in a dramatic effort means more to you than the story itself, you know that you're in for something special. At least, I do. If the human race does wind up going the opposite way of Judge's vision, there will be lines from this show quoted for hundreds of years. This show will be studied as a vision of what television could be if it tried hard enough, much as Rod Serling's Twilight Zone is treated today.

When I first started watching this show, I said it was "better than The Sopranos". In fact, it is The Sopranos. It just takes place in a different time and with a different tone. The foul language and the casual violence that drew so many viewers to The Sopranos should have done the same for Deadwood. However, it seems as if New Jersey mobsters reciting dialogue such as the following was much more popular:

Tony (on the phone with Paulie): Listen to me, this guy was a Russian green beret. He was in the ministry of the interior or something. He single-handedly killed 16 Chechen rebels. Be fucking careful.
Paulie: All right.
(Paulie hangs up the phone.)
Christopher: What did he say?
Paulie: He said the guy killed 16 Czechoslovakians, and he was an interior decorator.
Christopher: Interior decorator? His apartment looked like shit.

Don't get me wrong, here. I loved that episode of The Sopranos, as I did most every other episode. I think it is a great show and deserved every accolade it received. I'm just sorely disappointed that Deadwood didn't get the same sort of recognition.

Either Seth Bullock or Al Swearengen make a better "mob boss" than Tony Soprano. Either Trixie or Joanie Stubbs make a better "kept woman" than Carmela. Dan Dority makes a better Number One than Paulie or Christopher. Cy Tolliver (played by Powers FUCKING Boothe, for Chrissakes) makes a better "rival mob boss" than Johnny Sacramoni. Doc Cochran is ten times a more interesting character than Dr. Jennifer Melfi. While Deadwood really doesn't have anyone in the Big Pussy role that is nearly as good, The Sopranos doesn't have a Calamity Jane. That role played by Robin Weigert is so perfect and compelling that it is the one thing I will never get out of my head. Well, her and Al Swearengen, played by that midget with a huge dick, Ian MacShane. Those two, along with William Sanderson's portrayal of E.B. Farnum, seem to get most of the meat on the bone of the writing in this show, but there's plenty of leftovers for almost everyone. I don't know of any one character on this show that I would have removed to make it better. I cannot say that for The Sopranos.

However, compare that previous dialogue from The Sopranos with some of this:

Al: Pain or damage don't end the world. Or despair or fucking beatings. The world ends when you're dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man... and give some back.

Or, this:

Wild Bill: Some goddamn point a man's due to stop arguing with his-self and feeling twice the goddamn fool he knows he is 'cause he can't be something he tries to be every goddamn day without once getting to dinnertime and fucking it up. I don't want to fight it anymore, understand me Charlie? And I don't want you pissing in my ear about it. Can you let me go to hell the way I want to?

Or, this:

Ellsworth: Well'm, I've got myself a working gold claim.
Joanie Stubbs: Well, sir, is that a damn fact?
Ellsworth: A hell of a working gold claim, and if we knew each other better I'd throw "fucking" in there somewhere.
Joanie Stubbs: If you did I'd try to catch it.
Ellsworth: A working fucking gold claim, Joanie, and thank you for allowing me my full range of expression.

Or, this:

E.B.: Some ancient Italian maxim fits our situation, whose particulars escape me.
Wolcott: Is the gist that I'm shit out of luck?
E.B.: Did they speak that way then?

Or, a soliloquy by E.B. while scrubbing the floor:

You have been tested, Al Swearingen. And your deepest purposes proved: "There's gold on the woman's claim." You might as well have shouted it from the rooftops. (Speaking as Al:) That's why I'm jumping through hoops to get it back. Thorough as I fleeced the fool she married, I will fleece his widow, too. Using loyal associates like Eustace Bailey Farnum, as my go-betweens and dukes. To explain why I want her bought out, I'll make a pretext of my fear of the Pinkertons. I'll throw Farnum a token fee. Why should I reward E.B. with some small, fractional participation in the claim? Or let him even lay by a little security or source of continuing income for his declining years? What's he ever done for me? Except let me terrify him every god-damn day of his life 'till the idea of bowel regularity is a forlorn fucking hope? Not to mention ordering a man killed in one of E.B.'s rooms. So every fucking, free moment of his life, E.B. has to spend scrubbing the blood stains off the god-damn floor. ...to keep him from having to lower his rates. (As himself again:) GODDAMN! Motherfucker.

Goddamn the motherfucking cocksuckers who took this show away from me. For me, this was sturdy timber contributing to a solid vessel. I suppose it was only "useless material" for the average Nielsen viewer.

Dead"wood` (?), n.

1. Naut.

A mass of timbers built into the bow and stern of a vessel to give solidity.

2.

Dead trees or branches; useless material.

<-- unproductive workers! -->

 

© Webster 1913.

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