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12: November 23, 2008

Of Rome and Deadwood

I’ve slowly come around to the realization that most people who consider themselves bloggers prattle on and on about their hobbies and interests, what they ate that morning, who said what to them at the office and how that made them feel, etc., etc., secure in the knowledge that a vast reading public can’t wait for the next installment. Silly me. And here I’ve been proceeding on the assumption that people come to a writer’s website to get some insight into his writing process. I apologize, and henceforth shall try to provide the sort of morsels of the life of Josh Muggins the Private Man that presumably some of you have been thirsting for all this while.

Most weekends find me alone in my apartment here in urban eastern Japan while Mrs. Muggins tends to the 19th-century farmhouse that we maintain in the rural west. Like any right-thinking man in this situation, I spend weekend nights slowly working my way through a six-pack of beer and watching videos.

For beer I favor our local products, Sapporo and Kirin; for videos, American serial dramas. I used to rent movies but now it’s a strict diet of serial dramas, the art form for which, I believe, the America of the early 21st century will be most fondly remembered--unless you consider provoking worldwide economic chaos an art form. While a few of the dramas on network television—notably Lost—can be intermittently captivating, it’s the ones on cable, particularly on HBO, that will stand the test of time. The Sopranos, The Wire, and the like—these are where one finds the highest caliber of writing and production, the grittiest and most credible realism, and the most compelling characters. Not to mention nipples.

For most of 2008 I’ve been working my way through two of the shorter-lived HBO series, Rome (2 seasons, 2005-07) and Deadwood (3 seasons, 2004-06). While I’m still a half-dozen episodes shy of finishing Deadwood, I can heartily recommend an intensive viewing of either series to anyone who may have missed them during their runs.

Though the eras could hardly be farther apart, both tell the stories of real places going through tumultuous, violent change, and there are so many parallels running between them that one wonders just how coincidental those parallels are:

In both programs, the community itself plays the leading role, supported by a motley ensemble of human costars. Both series pull mind-scrambles on viewers with regard to their empathy: characters with whom we are at first led to identify turn out not to be all that upright, while others who initially come off as irredeemable scoundrels gradually gain our understanding. In the end, everyone emerges in only slightly different shades of dark gray. It’s a bit like the Clinton White House—itself very likely the setting of an HBO series circa 2075. In both Rome and Deadwood, a principal character operates and lives in a sleazy saloon-cum-brothel, thus providing an inexhaustible supply of gratuitous nudity. (The creators of both series had presumably noted that the popularity of The Sopranos was in no small way related to the Bada Bing.)

Both make an effort to follow historical records to the extent that good storytelling allows. For example, the first seasons of both trace the final chapters of the careers of terrifying alpha males (Wild Bill Hickok and Julius Caesar), climaxing with historically accurate enactments of their respective assassinations. The second seasons open with the chaotic vacuum that inevitably follows such killings. (There is no small dose of Great Man Theory in either of these shows.) Subplots in both programs show that a strong and beautiful woman (Alma Garret, Cleopatra) can survive and, at least for a while, even thrive in these very macho worlds while indulging a fondness for opiates.

With all that they have in common, is it possible to choose a favorite? Perhaps not, but I’ll give it a shot with a breakdown of the two programs’ cinematography, storytelling, acting, and tits.

Cinematography
I’m not a big visual arts guy, which is why I choose to express myself in words, but both of these series are visually stunning in their own ways. The Deadwood of Deadwood is shot in the colors that evoke the frontier as it probably really was, to say nothing of Al Gore’s ill-fated 2000 campaign wardrobe: the tans and browns of muddy streets and unpainted wooden store-fronts and animal skins.

The Rome of Rome, however, is just plain breathtaking, especially so if one’s expectations are based on the whitish-gray tone of the culture’s surviving museum pieces. The viewer’s eyeballs feasts on an almost painfully vivid smorgasbord of magentas and cyans and all those other shades that one never thinks of except when buying printer cartridges.

Advantage: Rome

Storytelling
Both series have a historical record to follow, which to writers can be both a blessing and a curse. The writers for Deadwood are somewhat freer to take liberties, since details of the frontier camp’s history are less known to the casual viewer than those of Rome in the time of the Caesars.

In Rome, the city itself was recreated with great attention to detail, but historical events provide only a rough outline for the story. To wit, the central characters are two soldiers from Caesar’s legions, Vorenus and Pullo, two real dudes mentioned briefly in Caesar’s Gallic diary; however, their adventures, which periodically bring them into contact with the high-born characters, are entirely fictitious. (The series' historical consultant has explained that the show aims for "authenticity" rather than "accuracy,” a phrasing that, as a memoirist, I quite like and eagerly intend to steal.) I don’t have a problem with those fictitious adventures, but in its characterization of the two adventurers I think the show errs too far on the side of realistic moral ambiguity. In a nutshell, neither of these two characters is very likable. They both have horrific tempers and/or irrepressible gonads that lead to the deaths of wives or cause would-be girlfriends to justifiably try to kill them. The protagonist of How To Pick Up Chicks… is a saint by comparison.

Indeed, I spent a full season and a half of Rome’s two-season run just admiring the aforementioned colorful scenery and puzzling over who I was rooting for. The plot offered few surprises, since history tells us clearly who is going to win the battles and who will fall on their swords. Finally, I settled on Octavian as my champion. He’s the only patrician not too snobby to befriend Vorenus and Pullo, and as he grows older, is the only one interested in the greater good of the city and not just his own survival. And while he, too, abuses his wife, he first does her the courtesy of politely explaining his habitual sadism to her before she agrees to marry him, an act which makes him a raving feminist by the standards of this John Milius-inspired world.

One thing you have to give Rome: the storytelling zips along, especially toward the end of season 2, when it became known to the writers that there would be no season 3 and so they suddenly had to cram the whole Antony-and-Cleopatra-holing-up-in-Egypt business into a short string of final episodes. In contrast, Deadwood pokes along much like life itself must have done in a lawless frontier town: long stretches in which newcomers to the camp feel each other out by day and feel each other up by night, punctuated by outbursts of graphic violence.

In terms of characters, Deadwood pulls a bait-and-switch of sorts on the viewer. The early episodes clearly dangle sheriff-to-be Seth Bullock before us as the hero, with his powerful sense of justice, his humorless demeanor, and his corncob-up-butt posture. Al Swearengen, Gem Saloon proprietor and ruthless whoremaster, is just as obviously set up as the (literally) oily-mustachioed villain. As if his thuggish style of personnel management and his remarkably Satanic face weren’t enough to place him beyond redemption, early on in the narrative he orders the murder of a helpless little girl who might be an eyewitness to the slaughter of the rest of her family by his employees.

But as the series grinds on, one begins to see him as a diabolical genius willing to kill, compromise, and cuss for the preservation of the community—a sort of wizened, F-bomb hurling, frontier Octavian. He forges an uneasy alliance with Bullock against even more sinister outside forces and, by the middle of the final season (where I’m at now), emerges as the central character of the drama, if not quite its hero in the classical sense. Deadwood is morally ambiguous in a much more fun way than Rome is. In the latter, there is no place for the viewer’s affections to go; in the former, there are too many options: one keeps giving those affections, then taking them back, then giving them again.

Deadwood also prevails in unpredictability. Last night, for example, I watched an episode that culminated in a hand-to-hand showdown in the muddy thoroughfare between chief Swearengen henchman Dan Dority and his opposite number, the bodyguard of the evil mining magnate George Hearst. I immediately flashed back to a similar scene from season 1 of Rome, in which Pullo was tossed into the Colosseum to face down three gladiators alone. Both scenes offered every prospect of particularly realistic, horrific violence; but with the Colosseum brawl, the outcome was never in doubt. It was obvious that Pullo’s creators weren’t about to kill him off. In the Deadwood showdown, while Dority had regular-character status on his side, the Deadwood creators had long since proven that that status carried no weight with them, and therefore it ought not to carry any with the viewer.

And here again: the moral ambiguity. While I had come to know Dority over the course of two and a half seasons, I was not sure that I would miss him. He had proven himself to be, in Macbeth’s phrase, quite literally the best of the cut-throats. And yet, as the messy battle see-sawed back and forth, I couldn’t help cheering him on. The eye-gouging that finally seals the deal in Dority’s favor made me happier than any eye-gouging scene I can remember. Way to go, Dan! Now, that’s good story-telling.

Advantage: Deadwood

Acting
Polly Walker garnered most of the early buzz, and a few awards to boot, for her portrayal of the spectacularly bitchy Atia in Rome. I’m not knocking her. It’s a compelling and consistent rendering of a character who can’t help but get tiresome toward the end. For me, the scene-stealer of the series—and one who unlike Atia doesn’t overstay his welcome (owing to his character’s date with destiny) is the Irish actor Ciaran Hinds as Julius Caesar.

This chap is everything you could want in a Caesar: regal, silky-voiced, and absolutely terrifying. The weaselly Brutus (another good performance, by Tobias Menzies) is barely able to scratch him with his knife even after all the other senators have bled him helpless, and I don’t blame Brutus one bit.

Deadwood counters with myriad serviceable performances, notably Keith Carradine’s brief run as Wild Bill Hickok, but towering above them all is Ian McShane’s Swearengen. He starts off every bit as imposing as Rome’s Caesar, but instead of succumbing to assassination, he instead survives a three-episode battle with kidney stones—and with 19th-century medical implements—that is much more harrowing to watch than the carving-up of Caesar. This illness follows hard upon a pummeling—complete with plunge from second-floor balcony—at the hands of the sheriff, and after going through all that, one can’t help finding sympathy for the character and respect for the over-60 actor who sells all that suffering as all too real. Throw in his several long, paranoid, strategy-formulating monologues while receiving oral gratification from the Employee of the Month, and the acting category clearly is no contest.

Advantage: Deadwood

Tits
Believe it or not, I did not attempt to keep an actual count, so I can’t tell you which series wins in quantity. At its peak, Deadwood offers not one, not two, but three competitive brothels. Rome counters with a brothel of its own, plus orgies on two continents.

In terms of quality, well, Molly Parker carries the flag for Deadwood with a series of very welcome bed scenes during her prim Eastern lady Alma Garret’s romance with Sheriff Bullock. Kudos to her breasts indeed. But nearly all the rest of the boobage on display in Deadwood belongs to prostitutes—prostitutes, alas, who look awfully authentic as the type of women who would find themselves selling their bodies in a stinking mudhole of a town like Deadwood in the late 19th century. I may be wrong. Perhaps the reality of Deadwood whores was even grimmer than the way they are portrayed here (I have my doubts about the women’s suspiciously good dental hygiene, but the same complaint can be made of everyone of every status in both of these series), but if there is another, still realer layer of depravity beneath that which we see on display in the brothels of Deadwood, I for one don’t care to go there.

Meanwhile, Rome seizes an early lead that it never relinquishes, what with Kerry Condon’s Octavia and Lyndsey Marshal’s Cleopatra sharing their goods with us in season 1 alone. Polly Walker (b. 1966) and Lindsay Duncan (b. 1950) also chip in admirably; I always feel a little better about myself when I realize that I can still be aroused by age-appropriate women. It’s thus almost unfair when, near the end of its run, Rome trots out the formidable rack of Alice Henley for a vigorous, undulating sex scene—sort of like the gratuitous nuking of an enemy’s capital after the war has already been won.

Robust advantage: Rome

Conclusion
As I’ve said, I still have half a season of Deadwood ahead of me. In the Tits category, then, Deadwood could still make a late run if Kim Dickens puts her by now familiar but always welcome assets on the table, and if he prim and worthy Anna Gunn does her bit.

Even if those things don’t happen, I’m going to commit something of an act of heresy here by declaring that the tag-team of crackerjack storytelling and acting trump the combo of superlative cinematography and tits. Still, if you haven’t watched either of these series, by all means check it out. You cannot go wrong.

Winner: Deadwood