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‘Deadwood’ is a trek though the Western past


If you were a fan of "Deadwood," the HBO series of a decade ago, you might be interested in watching "Deadwood: The Movie," which is on demand and was written by David Milch, who created the show. Following is a look at the series that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Imagine if you had access to a time machine. And you dropped into late 1800s America. Into, say, Deadwood, South Dakota. Imagine what that experience would be like. Even a romantic raised on classic Western movies would likely feel just a bit uncomfortable.

First, there would be the danger. Deadwood, which was founded in the mid-1870s as part of the Black Hills gold rush, was famous for its lawlessness. Even a feared gunslinger such as Wild Bill Hickok couldn’t play a friendly game of cards there without getting shot in the back.

And it would be filthy, its muddy streets filled with effluence emanating from both horse and human, its tent cities sheltering citizens who might bathe whenever a spring rain happened to wash through, its saloons lit by lamplight so dim the stains of spilled drink and blood could all too easily be mistaken for shadows.

Even basic communication might prove problematic. No doubt most of those living on the edge of 19th-century society, where Deadwood sat when it was founded, spoke English. But thick accents and regional jargon might have made it sound, at times, like an older version of itself.

That, at least, is the view of David Milch – the creator and executive producer of the HBO series “Deadwood,” which ran for three seasons beginning in 2004. Milch, a one-time English Literature lecturer at Yale University, wrote several of the series’ 36 episodes while overseeing the others. And he is listed as the sole writer on the recently released “Deadwood: The Movie,” a feature film that explores what the town’s various characters are up to a decade after the series ended.

That series received generally good reviews, though critics and viewers both were put off by the violence, some of which seemed almost casually cruel. And it never gained the status of other HBO projects – “The Sopranos,” say, or “Six Feet Under.” Yet its characters, especially the main ones – such as Seth Bullock (played by Timothy Olyphant) and Al Swearengen (played by Ian McShane), both of whom were based on real people – remain among the most intriguing ever portrayed on the small screen.

The main storyline over the series involves struggle: against the elements, sure, and against each other (Bullock is the town lawman and Swearengen is the saloon owner and both adhere to their own sometimes conflicted sense of morality) but also against themselves (all the characters, in one way or another, are emotionally flawed).

And besides Olyphant and McShane, other talented performers include Brad Dourif, John Hawkes, Molly Parker, Robin Weigert (as Calamity Jane) and Gerald McRaney (as George Hearst).

Most intriguing, though – at least to those of us interested in language – is the manner in which Milch has his characters speak. He employs a blend of what Slate.com TV critic Matt Feeney once described as “utter long, serpentine sentences, in diction that –depending on the speaker – can ascend to courtly abstraction or sink to the ripest vulgarity.”

Either way, the sound often feels neo-Shakespearean, as in this rare G-rated dialogue between Wild Bill (played by Keith Carradine) and a local woman:

Hickok: “You know the sound of thunder, Mrs. Garret?”

Garret: “Of course.”

Hickok: “Can you imagine that sound if I asked you to?”

Garret: “Yes, I can, Mr. Hickok.”

Hickok: “Your husband and me had this talk, and I told him to head home to avoid a dark result. But I didn't say it in thunder. Ma'am, listen to the thunder.”

To best understand the context of this language, you should binge-watch “Deadwood” the series from the beginning. And then watch the movie.

Whatever you do, though, stay away from that time machine.

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