Thursday, December 23, 2010

Countdown: The 10 Greatest TV Seasons of All Time - #7

7. Deadwood - Season 1 - In 1997, HBO revolutionized television drama with Oz, a show set inside a maximum security prison.  Because the series aired on premium cable, it could go places that the networks would never dare.  Oz had nudity, violence, profanity, rape, and most of the characters were vile, detestable people.  And it wasn't just the subject matter that set it apart from pretty much every show ever to air on American TV.  Oz borrowed from the British school of emphasizing quality over quantity by having shorter seasons with focused writing, film-quality direction, and serialized arcs that told stories with a beginning, middle, and end, like chapters of a great novel.  HBO took the Oz model and used it to create the best gangster show of all time (The Sopranos) as well as the best cop show (The Wire) and the best Western show--Deadwood.  The inaugural season of Deadwood tackles large themes--what makes a civilization, death, the existence of God, greed, friendship, loyalty, love--using distinctly profane dialogue that could best be described as Shakespeare by way of David Mamet.  The other two seasons of Deadwood are excellent as well, but season 1 reigns supreme because of the way it introduces the colorful characters and then logically details how they are pushed together to form a society despite their best intentions.

Key Episodes:

Here Was a Man - The new crop of HBO dramas are dense.  They are littered with more characters and plot threads than most viewers can keep up with on the first viewing.  This makes the shows hard to fall in love with, but very rewarding if you have the time and patience.   Deadwood is no exception to this rule.  The first few episodes are necessary to set the scene, but they can be a little confusing, especially when it comes to deciphering the peculiar (though brilliant) dialogue.  The pieces fall into place and the show kicks into high gear in the fourth episode, "Here Was a Man."  Gold is discovered on land belonging to transplanted urbanite Alma Garret just as her husband meets an untimely end, setting off a chain of Machiavellian scheming by the town's unsavory element.  An old friend of casino owner Cy Tolliver stumbles into the camp carrying a potentially deadly plague.  Yet the main focus of the episode is on the legendary Wild Bill Hickock who Keith Carradine plays so well that it is almost a shame that Deadwood tries to remain faithful to historical events.  Hickock's final hours change everything and set the stage for the remainder of the series with an intelligence and solemn, quiet beauty.
Jewel's Boot is Made for Walking - The greatness of Deadwood is encapsulated in the final scene of the first season's penultimate episode.  Al Swearengen, the most magnetic figure in a show full of them (played by the great Ian McShane), delivers an angry monologue about regret and his childhood while receiving fellatio from one of the prostitutes in his employ.  He stops every once in a while to correct her technique without losing his passion or train of thought.  This is disgusting, funny, beautiful, and profound.  The scene wallows in the worst aspects of humanity, but there is also a glimmer of empathy or even kindness in Swearengen's frustration about the unfairness of the local reverend slowly and publicly succumbing to brain cancer.  Maybe everything isn't black and white.  Maybe not everyone gets what they deserve.  Maybe terrible people can do good things and maybe good people can do terrible things.  This is the essence of Deadwood and it is brought to life uncommonly lyrical writing and intense acting. 

Sold Under Sin - The season finale is all about confrontations.  A magistrate arrives from neighboring Yankton along with an general and his troops, signaling that the town is one step closer to becoming a part of the United States.  Bullock beats the hell out of Alma Garrett's father after he states his intentions of taking over her gold claim.  This leads to a surprisingly sexy scene as Alma and Bullock finally release the sexual tension that has been building up between them all season.  The reverend deteriorates to a point where Swearengen feels compelled to take action.  And finally, Bullock is pushed to the point where he takes over as sheriff, a role that he avoided even though he was obviously the best man for the job.  The remarkable thing about Deadwood is the way the seasons slowly build up to a conclusion that brings all of the stories together around a common theme.  Here, the theme is best summed up by Al when he says, "Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh."

The List So Far:

10. Twin Peaks - Season 1
9. Northern Exposure - Season 4
8. Curb Your Enthusiasm - Season 2
7. Deadwood - Season 1


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