It has been many years since Westerns were essentially black-and-white, cut-and-dried stories of good versus evil: morality tales with lots of horses and guns and one of everything else—a sheriff, an outlaw, an embattled hero, a town drunk, a whore with a heart of gold, a honky-tonk piano, and a schoolteacher from Illinois, who found out shortly after arriving in town that, for worse and for better, there was more to life than book learnin’. Indians were, for the most part, the obstacle that had to be overcome—although sometimes there was a “good one.” Although Westerns have evolved, the conventions are still often glaring, making even Westerns that have gray, shadowy moral areas a tough sell to some people. There’s just too much dust, leather, whinnying, shooting, and mud—too much brown—and not enough talking, understanding, humor, and complexity. The trappings of Westerns make them seem fake and message-y, even as they strain to be realistic. David Milch’s “Deadwood,” which begins its third season on HBO on Sunday, is the exception to the rule; in what I’d assumed was very poor soil, he’s produced a gorgeously living thing.
“Deadwood” is set, of course, in Deadwood, in the Dakota Territory. It begins in 1876, when the settlement was just a few buildings in the crease between two hills, lining the sides of a muddy street, there to meet the needs of the men who flocked tothe Black Hills after gold was discovered in the area. The settlement is so small that your eye can take in the whole town at a glance; in a sense, viewers have the same perspective as Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), the saloonkeeper and power broker of the camp, who conducts much of his business from his second-story quarters, above the bar, but often goes out on his balcony to observe the goings on in town below. Over the first two seasons, we have watched Deadwood grow—the real Deadwood went from being a cluster of prospectors to a roiling community in less than a year. In the show, the cemetery expands; bigger, louder equipment is brought in to get at the gold deep underground; more prostitutes are shipped in. Seeing America being built in this way, we see what it is made of. Men are constantly digging, hauling, and hammering, and the desire, hard work, and risk that it took to create this place are always front and center. “Deadwood” takes you past the familiar cardboard cutouts of Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and “the Old West,” and acquaints you with the real forces and peoples that converged to form our country.
Milch, who co-created “NYPD Blue,” with Steven Bochco, has a deep understanding of tortured souls and a gift for depicting the ways in which people are torn apart and come together. You never feel as though he were imposing a contemporary outlook onto the past in order to make his drama more “relatable”; instead, he shows how the past still lives in us. It’s obvious that serious research went into “Deadwood,” but, as Milch says, he learned as much as he could and then threw out most of what he knew when he began writing the show. “Deadwood” draws on history without being slavishly beholden to the facts; it smells and sounds right, and every aspect of the luxuriant production contributes to that sense: the costumes and sets seem to have perfectly calibrated levels of wear and tear. There are at least a dozen sensational performances, among them Keith Carradine as Hickok; Dayton Callie as his sidekick, Charlie Utter; Robin Weigert as Calamity Jane; Jeffrey Jones as the nosy newspaper publisher A. W. Merrick; Paula Malcomson as Trixie, a prostitute with higher aspirations; and Geri Jewell as Jewel, Swearengen’s crippled maid. Ian McShane’s Swearengen is a murderer, a monster, a clever beast you cannot help being drawn to; he wears a pin-striped suit over long johns, which emphasizes his hugely thick neck and his large head—he’s an unstoppable wall of man coming at you, episode after episode (except when he is pitiably felled, temporarily, by a kidney stone). But you don’t really notice the casting per se, because you’re too engrossed in the characters, listening to what they say, and trying to get inside their heads and hearts.
“Deadwood” has ten or so writers and nearly as many directors, but there is a unity to the dialogue (Milch is one of the executive producers). It is ornate and profane—far beyond, on both counts, anything that’s ever been on television. But you never feel that the show’s creators have injected the swearing gratuitously. It even has different colors, depending on who’s doing it—when Calamity Jane is trying to comfort a little girl whose family has just been hacked to death, by singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” to her with Charlie Utter, there’s something touching about the way she yells “God damn it!” when he screws up the timing. What I find more brutal than the language is seeing freshly dead bodies fed to the pigs, or people not stopping to help Jewel when she falls in the street. (In the scene, a horse walks by in the foreground, its large, all-seeing eye rebuking human cruelty.) People just go about their business, and their business is making money.
But even making money the Deadwood way is small potatoes compared to the interests that start descending on the town when the stakes get big—one of whom is George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), the father of William Randolph Hearst, whose arrival signals the beginning of strong-arm capitalism. It remains to be seen whether, in season three, Swearengen and his cohorts will adapt to the new ways. What we surely won’t see is Deadwood evolving into what it is today—a tourist trap. “Deadwood” has not been renewed for a fourth season, though there is a slim chance that it will return. Milch is now working on another pilot for HBO, called “John from Cincinnati,” which he has described as “surf noir.” Sounds iffy, but so did a show about a mafioso who goes to a psychiatrist.