In the past decade an interesting trend has developed among television audiences—a result, surely, of many cultural and technological factors, but most of all streaming and recording services like Netflix and TiVo.
I refer, of course, to The Binge.
You can characterize The Binge in two simple ways: one, you watch every episode of every season, in order; two, you do not take the traditional week’s timeout delay between shows (in fact, you often find yourself watching five or six hours in a row during The Binge).
People are making careers out of debating the negative and positive aspects of The Binge. Some argue that narrative art ought to be serialized (cf. Dickens publishing episodically in Master Humphrey’s Clock and Household Words in the 1840’s and 50’s); others argue that sitting down and concentrating on a TV series is like sitting down and concentrating on a novel (cf. Dickens ever since).
Out of the seven shows I’ve binged on, only one was not an HBO show--Breaking Bad. I seem to subscribe wholeheartedly to the network’s slogan—“It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” Better yet, I think it should go something like this: “It’s not TV. It’s art.”
For the past two months I have lived without internet or television in Tennessee, and this lack of distraction was beginning, well, to distract me. So I rented all three seasons of Deadwood and began The Binge by watching them on my laptop in a week’s time.
Now, I realize my initial aim was only to include reviews of underappreciated works of art on this blog but that I am already making an exception. (“Do I contradict myself?” Whitman writes. “Very well, I am large. I contain multitudes.”)
For one thing, it’s not that Deadwood is necessarily underappreciated. The HBO show won 8 Emmys and a Golden Globe, and critics reviewed it favorably during its run from 2004-2006.
But when you stack it up against other HBO masterpieces (and, not coincidentally, the four other shows I’ve binged on)--The Sopranos (six seasons; 86 episodes), The Wire (five seasons; 60 episodes), Six Feet Under (five seasons; 63 episodes), Game of Thrones (three seasons and counting; 30 episodes and counting)—you see that its run was short-lived. (And among a small, informal survey of my friends, only a few have seen it.)
I’m sort of surprised I liked it, as the Old West has never been my favorite subject. But this show, with its blend of historical and fictional characters, amply investigates the exploits of late nineteenth-century capitalism and the manifestations of post-Civil war violence (as seen, most notably, in the cowboy). And a good HBO series, whatever its setting, is like a Russian novel, in which plot points connect over vast swatches of time.
But it’s not Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy that critics compare regularly to Deadwood. It’s Shakespeare. Consider The AFI awards, in a nomination: “Deadwood is a Shakespearean epic in spurs.” And again, the following year: “Grand schemes and Shakespearean motives take viewers on a true journey through time...”
The reason I’ve been living in Tennessee (again, not coincidentally) is to teach Shakespeare, so the connection wouldn’t otherwise be lost on me. And I think it’s fair. We have characters with Macbeth-like ambition. Drunks in the vein of Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch. Buffoons worthy of Dogberry. Jealousies à la Othello.
But I think the fairest comparisons are in the language, for Deadwood, as most critics have rightly agreed, is all about the language, which is, by turns, eloquent, vulgar, purplish, muscular, Victorian, American, and vulgar again. The primary modes are the hornswoggle and the insult.
Consider a few lines, taken nearly at random.
From E.B. Farnum, de facto mayor and hotelier, who basically says here that he needs to fart: “Allow me a moment's silence Mr Hearst, sir, I'm having a digestive crisis and must focus on repressing it's expression.”
But the most dramatic Shakespearean linguistic conceit that the show revives is the soliloquy. It’s hard to dramatize the soliloquy in the 21st century—voiceovers seem cheap—but here we have a gold miner who talks to his dog; a famous cowgirl, Calamity Jane, mumbling at Wild Bill Hicock’s grave; a drunk livery operator who talks dirty to a horse; a loveably buffoonish hotelier who speaks the show’s most eloquent monologues to a dumb lackey; and, most significantly, the show’s tragic villain-hero, the saloon owner Al Swearengen, rhapsodizing and confessing and scheming while one of his prostitutes goes down on him. (Or, at other times, when he talks to a decapitated Indian head.)
Indeed, it is Ian McShane’s performance that shines brightest in a superbly-acted show. Apparently, his Swearengen landed at #6 on TV’s Guide’s “Nastiest TV Villains of All-Time,” though he becomes a villain, like Tony Soprano, whom your learn to love. That is, his villainy begins to pale in comparison to a set of increasingly nasty characters that infiltrate the town of Deadwood: a rival pimp, Cy Tolliver; a murderously misogynistic geologist, Frances Wolcott; and the monomaniacal gold magnate George Hearst.
The worst actor, in my opinion, is the show’s other protagonist, its good guy—Sheriff Seth Bullock, played by the handsome actor Timothy Oliphant, whose one expression seems to be the scowl (that I thought always seemed, oddly enough, to border on a laugh). I get the point: the sheriff is a man with principles, easily given to anger, etc. etc. But Oliphant didn’t seem to have the range of emotion, even the subtle range of emotion within anger, that the other actors had.
Still, Deadwood will go down as one of my all-time favorite shows. I ended The Binge as always: craving more, feeling like I'd lost a friend, having the lingering sense that there is more to be told.
So that may be the worst thing HBO has ever done: cancelling too soon a show that now lives in the annals of undervalue.
 Much has been made of the vulgarity, but I’ve also never seen a show in which they drink so much whiskey and yet never really seem drunk. They take more shots in one episode than in all eleven seasons of Cheers!
 Perhaps with the exception of Arli$$