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"Deadwood" at 10: Still Ahead of Its Time

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire March 11, 2014 at 10:29AM

Looking back on the profanely great series, and what its premature ending says about the state of TV today.
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Deadwood

Ten years after its premiere, fans still mourn the premature end of "Deadwood," David Milch's profane, sprawling ode to the rise of a South Dakota gold-mining town. Matt Zoller Seitz's video essay, "A Lie Agreed Upon," won't bring the show back, and though hopes perennially surface, the chances of it being revived in any format are virtually nil; even Milch himself is resigned to its end.  But it serves as a thorough, bittersweet overview of the show's greatness, and a reminder that for all the strides that have been made since, TV still remains a frustrating and limited medium. The fact that Milch, whose pilot, "Money," HBO recently declined to send to series, hasn't been able to keep a show on the air for more than 10 episodes since 2006 says much worse things about the industry he works in than it does about him.

Written by Seitz and edited by his frequent collaborator Steven Santos (whose like-minded video essay on Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" is at the end of this post), "A Lie Agreed Upon" is narrated by Jim Beaver, who played the show's veteran prospector, Ellsworth, and has also been a frequent presence in comments threads for articles about the show. The show, he says, was about "a whole heck of a lot of things in no particular oder, and it's that 'in no particular order' part that makes it so rich," but he gets to the heart of it when he identifies the core theme as "the story of civilization, American and otherwise." 

Watching Gerald McRaney's performance as the ruthless, powerful George Hearst -- whose son, newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, would serve as the model for another great story of the corruptions of power, "Citizen Kane" -- it's hard not to see his similar character on "House of Cards" as a pallid reflection, which extends to the relationship between the shows as a whole. It's hard to imagine a more bleak or corrosive portrait of the foundations of American society, but "Deadwood" still finds light in the darkness, and in a manner far less trite and forced than the hug-it-out conclusion of "True Detective." (For all Nic Pizzolatto's rationalizations about the difficulties of creating fleshed-out female characters in a story about a male-dominated world, "Deadwood" managed it a heck of a lot better.") Now that Seitz is nearing the end of the promotional cycle for "The Wes Anderson Collection," maybe a "Deadwood" book is next?


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