by Ted S. McGregor Jr.
Some of those old 1950s Westerns glossed over the less appealing parts of the cowboy era. Over the past few decades, there's been an effort to portray the old West more accurately -- filled with whorin', thievin' and killin'. But in an effort to put a grittier edge on that time, is it possible to get it wrong again?
David Milch, creator of HBO's Deadwood, just may have made the Wild West even wilder than it really was. But in setting his story in Deadwood, now in South Dakota, in 1876, Milch does capture that twilight time when settlers were coming but the law hadn't quite taken root. In Deadwood, order is imposed by the ruthless -- in the person of Al Swearengen (Ian McShane). In the first of the 12 episodes in Season One, Swearengen is busy making money by whatever means possible -- murdering business rivals (and associates), pushing booze and women on gold-seekers and selling bogus claims to overeager prospectors.
At the same time, two newcomers to Deadwood dare to bring a semblance of law -- the last thing Swearengen wants. Former sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and the notorious Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) set into motion events that keep Swearengen moving fast to preserve his sordid little empire. Throughout the first season, he has to hide his crimes against innocent settlers, fend off the challenge from a new saloon and deal with an outbreak of smallpox.
Milch, the creator of NYPD Blue, is known for his dense dialogue and edgy material. In Deadwood, that adds up to the near-constant spewing of profanity. Maybe this approximates what things were really like back in 1876, but it comes off as an attempt to "grit it up." In addition, despite McShane's work, the scripts makes Swearengen more like pure evil than a real person. Bit players are even more one-dimensional -- a road agent from the second episode even verges into Yosemite Sam territory. As the former sheriff, meanwhile, Olyphant plays it too stiff.
The Sopranos set the standard for HBO with its realism; Deadwood strives for the same thing. But like those glossed-up '50s Westerns, it evokes a glorified era without quite getting it right.
Publication date: 04/07/05