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A few years ago, fed up with my local monopoly cable TV service, I cancelled it and instead subscribed to DSL internet access for around the same cost. Giving up TV was not all that hard—for a while—but I gradually found myself spending more time watching Blockbuster rentals, and finally, I joined Netflix. What have I learned? Among other things, I learned that there are great movies out there that never get shown in the theaters (as, for example, those produced by HBO, the "home box office"}. Great in what sense? As series that can go on for thirteen hours every year, for years, they can make use of character, plot, and background material in ways that can't be done in a typical feature film. Compare, for example, the Godfather I through III feature film series, with The Sopranos.
Deadwood is such a series, focused on the former mining camp in the Dakota Territory, land of the Lakota Sioux, and now a town which attracts tourism with legalized gambling. The unity of time and place in the series is the period before statehood (1870's), when there was literally no law, and order was a work in progress. There were many legendary characters who were there at the time: Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Seth Bullock, and they are portrayed in the series along with fictional characters.
The TV series functions well on several levels. First of all, it is excellent drama with believable human dilemmas in each episode, but not at the expense of melodramatic action. Bluntly (there is a lot of bluntness in Deadwood), there is plenty of violence, some sex, and every episode is rarely if ever boring. Secondly, the series is highly researched, a historical film par excellence, and grittily realistic, down to the profanity that malodorous drunks and filthy miners would have used in that era, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. Thirdly, Deadwood works hard to show the humanity of every major and many of the minor characters, good, evil and mostly a combination of both. But it is not simply a "slice of life" exercise in realism or naturalism.
At its highest levels, Deadwood dares to tackle themes of morality, of what is right and what is wrong, including what is right and wrong not only in an anarchic mining camp but also with constitutional but flawed government, then and now. And even as a morality play, Deadwood functions on two levels. There are the stock villains of contemporary political correctness: white racists, obscene male chauvinist pigs, fat greedy corrupt businessmen, and a religious zealot who is actually a madman. On yet another level, however, there is what Ayn Rand called "bootleg Romanticism." There are good guys and bad guys (and gals), people who chose to be good or bad and acted on their choices with some or even a fair amount of success, in spite of the grinding determinism of trauma and poverty. In my childhood, good guys and bad guys were portrayed in Westerns wearing white hats and black hats respectively. In the Deadwood TV series, almost everyone literally wears black hats or none at all, but the viewer has the satisfaction of making moral judgments, which, as in life itself, is not always easy.
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