Published on Friday, September 16, 2011
How a Non-Western Television Series
Challenged Myth and Stereotype
By Kenneth Mark Hoover
I. On its Ancient Roman Origin
"Sometimes I wish we could just hit 'em over the head, rob 'em, and throw their bodies in the creek." - Al Swearengen
Deadwood has superb writing, excellent characterization, exacting historical research and atmosphere. But it is not a western, and was never intended by its creator, David Milch, to be a western.
Milch originally approached HBO pitching the story of lawless people struggling to create social stability and civilization out of chaos. He wanted to set the series in ancient Rome, but HBO already had that idea in production. So Milch chose the Old West as his background, setting the story in Deadwood. The setting was incidental to the story arc Milch wanted to tell. Therefore, since the Old West is nothing more than background stage furniture, and plays no integral part to the overall storyline, Deadwood does not, and was never meant from the outset of its creation, to be a western.
However, despite the method by which it was created, Deadwood is today believed by many viewers and writers of the genre to be a western. So in this light I will consider the series, its impact on our genre, and how it helped shape, and ultimately challenge, the collective consciousness of American culture.
II. The Quality of Writing
"Puberty may bring you to understand what we take for mother-love is really murderous hatred and a desire for revenge." - E.B. Farnum
The first thing you notice when you watch this series is the level of writing. Then again we are talking about television which, through its main purpose to elevate mediocrity, is not a terribly high bar. But, Milch's work for the most part, and considered from the standpoint of pure literary art, is stellar, and born from the fire of genius. To be fair, Milch doesn't get everything right. But when his game is on, the story, and the characters, shine bright.
For a writer like myself who works in the genre, this was a welcome change. It is also a direct shot by Milch at Old West stereotypes whose creation had more to do with early Hollywood censorship, and the Hays Code, than historical accuracy.
I think it's important to expand this last point further so we can better understand Deadwood on a deeper level. Through movies and books, restrictive stereotypes and cliches were nurtured by writers and directors alike until they subsumed the American consciousness and become accepted as fact -- at least among the general populace. The Laconic Cowboy, The Whore with the Heart of Gold, The Spinster Schoolmarm, and other two-dimensional characters continue to populate, and debilitate, the genre today. Which is not to say such characters never existed. The West was populated by millions of people from different backgrounds, theologies, and cultures. That's a given.
I merely argue the stereotypes we think of when we consider the Old West are not the norm, and were never the norm. The reductionist character of John Wayne was but one element of the mythos. Despite what we would like to think otherwise, he was not the template of historical accuracy.
Throughout time, the West, and our perception of the West, became something other than historical record. While it is true history is nothing more than a lie agreed upon, we nevertheless came to believe these historical revisions as fact. The ideas perpetuated by a Hollywood dream machine, itself dominated by censorship, percolated throughout the fabric of our culture.
That is why I think Deadwood, a so-called "western" television series that was never meant to be a western in the first place, successfully challenges that perception. It has its strongest, and most lasting impact, on that holistic level.
III. Language and its Effect
"Something terrible is going to happen here." - Joanie Stubbs
Much was made of the swearing and usage of modern language in Deadwood. Several swear words used throughout the series didn't come into common usage until the 20th century, though to be sure many others were used in Victorian times, and often. Especially in a mining camp populated by men living at a subsistence level in the middle of a wilderness.
Nevertheless, I personally had little trouble with this aspect, even though I understand some of it was anachronistic.
It might also explain the mediocre ratings. I can't help but wonder if viewers simply could not accept anything outside their comfort zone when confronted by Deadwood. I am not trying to be mean. But the western stereotype has taken such deep root in our imagination we cannot escape its influence. So I wonder if that might be part of the reason for the low ratings? People simply couldn't wrap their heads around a new way to tell old stories. I think it possible, especially when you consider this raw, in-your-face, full blown assault delivered by Milch.
As to language, Milch explained he did this to portray the lawlessness of the camp and to give modern viewers an inkling of what it was like in Victorian times to hear, and use, blasphemous language. He originally wanted to use period language, but test audiences thought the characters sounded too funny.
One final note about our modern perception and how it gets in the way of historical accuracy. I have often heard people remark "They didn't talk that way" when confronted with historical dialogue. This was a common refrain with the remake of True Grit by the Cohen Brothers in 2010.
Well, to be blunt, yes, they did speak that way. Again, audiences (and a few writers who should know better) are taking Hollywood stereotypes and Ned Buntline yellowbacks as some sort of core truth, and using that as a foundation. I just think that's a mistake, and its lazy writing.
You see, we do know how people spoke back then. We not only have speeches and newspapers, we have access to private correspondence. These intimate letters reveal how people related to one another and the grammar and language structure they used. It was flowery, and yet at the same time it was exact. These people were living outside the bounds of civilization. Language was the only way they could convey to one another they possessed a shared commonality. (Institutional racism was another social bonding mechanism with some people.) So it's no surprise communication became baroque and formal under these pressures and privations.
It sounds stilted and funny to us today because we are so completely immersed in civilization. It is difficult for us to escape it even if we try. We have no need to convince others we have a shared history or shared social background. Technology guarantees that we do. But, in the Old West, when you were living on the plains, the only thing you had left to show that you were connected to civilization in some remote way was through your language. Therefore, language assumed an importance we do not recognize or utilize today, given, as I said, our total immersion in modernity.
Finally, as to the cursing itself, it's true Victorians did swear like longshoremen and used sexually-charged phrases. The underground erotic novel My Secret Life by the anonymous Victorian known only as "Walter", and published in 1888, describes in detail how people spoke and thought and swore when it came to sexual matters.
However, I absolutely understand the concern fans had regarding the language used throughout the series. I also understand how it can become a barrier. But in this case it appears Milch made a conscious decision based on artistic concerns rather than shock value. As a writer, I do not feel I can challenge his decision, especially as the language itself in no way lessens the historical impact of the series, or verisimilitude of the characters.
IV. The Future of the Genre
"Can you let me go to hell the way I want to?" - Wild Bill Hickok
History is a lie agreed upon. Culture is a perception agreed upon. We cannot ignore that Deadwood is considered by many people to be a seminal western television program.
Therefore, we are forced to evaluate how this phenomena has opened cultural doors and opportunities for other voices who wish to tell their stories using our genre as a template. Deadwood did a superb job of this, in my opinion. It showed us perspectives of lots of different people in socially complex ways and ultimately challenged many of our beliefs.
I argue this is a good thing. As any genre grows it also adapts and reflects the new voices that come along. This allows us to have new perceptions and integrate different ideas which in turn enable the genre to thrive. Because Deadwood was so violent and irreverent, and because it challenged us on so many different levels, I think its very existence pushed the boundaries of what we ever considered "acceptable" in the western genre.
Deadwood was not a perfect show. It had a lot of flaws, continuity being among the least of them. Nor was it the perfect western. But it did move the bar higher. As western writers, we have been forced to think deeper, and work harder, to meet that challenge. I think that's a good thing.
And we have Deadwood, a non-western "western", to thank for that.
Kenneth Mark Hoover is a professional writer who has sold over fifty short stories and articles. His novel, Fevreblau, was published by Five Star Press in 2005. His last sales have been to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and the anthologies Destination: Future and Zero Gravity. He is a member of SFWA and HWA. Mr. Hoover lives and writes in Dallas.
You can find more about the mythological town of Haxan and its citizens on his webpage kennethmarkhoover.com/haxan.