December 16, 2010


"Deadwood" rides again: A new release of the canceled HBO series brings it to glorious life -- and proves why Blu-ray actually matters (Matt Zoller Seitz, 12/10/10, Salon)

[[T]V shows with high production values such as "Deadwood" are in a unique, and in many ways more thrilling, class; watching them in high-definition is not like rewatching a feature film that you originally saw on a big screen -- a restoration of detail, a return to an ideal, original state. No, this is akin to getting a chance to stand close to a huge, elaborate mural that had previously been seen only in photographs, and admire the texture of the paint and the precision of the brushwork.

This is definitely the case with "Deadwood." The series was carefully lit, shot on 35mm film, and funded by one of the more generous budgets in TV history. Milch's set-builders, costumers and set decorators invested the title locale with more detail than the pixelated murk of regular TV could reveal. Blu-ray lets you appreciate tactile nuances of clothing, architecture and skin that once were submerged in electronic broth. The fine brushwork was always there. We just couldn't see it.

But it's not the details themselves that are revelatory. It's what the details tell you about the show -- and the mentality of the people who made it. "Deadwood" on Blu-ray does more than amp up the show's imagery. It burns away lingering misconceptions and distracting side issues and gives us a better sense of what the show truly was, and why it was great.

From its 2004 debut through its sudden 2006 cancellation, "Deadwood" earned praise for creator and head writer David Milch's musically elaborate dialogue and for its intense and colorful performances. But the series also drew barbs for its faithfulness to history (it stuck closer to the record than most period dramas while reserving the right to invent whatever it pleased), and for the veracity of its language. Some linguists pointed out that 1880s Americans did not use the F-word as often, or in as many grammatical variations, as characters on Milch's show; Milch replied that he'd thought about having the characters swear in period, using religious oaths instead of secular curses, but decided against it, because to modern, secular ears, 19th-century blasphemy sounds more quaint than shocking. (If the characters used period-accurate swear words, Milch told one interviewer, "They'd all wind up sounding like Yosemite Sam.")

These complaints always seemed off-point. But when you're looking at "Deadwood" in Blu-ray they seem downright irrelevant, like noting that Sergio Leone's version of the Old West bears little relation to the real thing, or that 1950s Hoboken dockworkers didn't sound like the characters in "On the Waterfront," or that mid-century Europe wasn't the soul-dead, depopulated urban wasteland depicted in Michelangelo Antonioni's existential dramas, or that "Apocalypto" misrepresents ancient Atzec culture. Like all those works, "Deadwood" is mainly a record of the contents of its creator's imagination. What you're seeing bears a certain kinship to fact, but it isn't meant to correspond precisely to anything that happened or anything that anyone said.

Milch was interested in history as a narrative infrastructure, something to enclose and support tales that could have been enacted by ancients in robes and masks. When Milch first approached HBO with an idea for an epic series about the birth and evolution of a community, it was set in ancient Rome; when HBO informed him that they had just ordered a show titled "Rome," Milch revised the concept and set it in 1880s South Dakota. If the cable channel had balked again, Milch might have transposed the series to medieval England or 1940s Tijuana or on the planet Noo-Noo. Whatever the final form, the series still would been "Deadwood": an ensemble drama about the relationship between individuals and society, with dialogue that sounded like an R-rated libretto minus the music, and situations that played out in a stylized space that evoked an immense, three-dimensional stage set -- a theater-in-the-round through which the viewer could wander, privileged and invisible, like the angels in "Wings of Desire." (At the end of Season 1, Sheriff Seth Bullock and the widow Alma Garrett regard each other through second-story windows on opposite sides of Deadwood's main thoroughfare; the direction alternates point-of-view shots gliding toward the characters from a camera that seems to be floating in the air above the street.)

Seen in high-definition format, the program doesn't look like "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" anymore, or "The Long Riders, or "Tombstone." It looks like "Deadwood" -- its own thing; sui generis.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 16, 2010 6:19 AM
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