Thursday, March 10, 2005

Using the kind of language, that makes the sergeant blush

Most of the time, the NYT's Frank Rich does a wildly bad job of his function as a television critic, digressing into rants so lacking in lucidity as to seriously give Maureen Dowd a run for her money in the paper's weekly Chock Full of Crazy competition. On occasion, though, his work can be rather sharp, such as in this discussion of Deadwood: The latest scheme for broadening [broadcast] censorship arrived the week after the Oscar show was reduced to colorless piffle on network television. Ted Stevens, the powerful chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, pronounced himself sick of "four-letter words with participles" on cable and satellite television. "I think we have the same power to deal with cable as over the air," he said, promising to carry the fight all the way to the Supreme Court. [...] If you can see only one of the shows that he wants to banish or launder, let me recommend the series that probably has more four-letter words, with or without participles, than any in TV history. That would be "Deadwood" on HBO. Its linguistic gait befits its chapter of American history, the story of a gold-rush mining camp in the Dakota Territory of the late 1870's. "Deadwood" is the back story of a joke like "The Aristocrats" and of everything else that is joyously vulgar in American culture and that our new Puritans want to stamp out. It's the ur-text of Vegas and hip-hop and pulp fiction. It captures with Boschian relish what freedom, by turns cruel and comic and exhilarating, looked and sounded like at full throttle in frontier America before anyone got around to building churches or a government. Its creator is David Milch, a former Yale fraternity brother of George W. Bush and the onetime protégé of Robert Penn Warren, whose 1946 novel "All the King's Men" upends bowdlerized fairy tales about American politics just as "Deadwood" dismantles Hollywood's old sanitized Westerns. As Mr. Milch says in an interview on the DVD of the first "Deadwood" season: "It's very well documented that the obscenity of the West was striking, and that the obscenity of mining camps was unbelievable." There was "a tremendous energy to the language," he adds, but the reason this language never surfaced in movie Westerns during the genre's heyday was the Hays production code. For some 30 years starting in 1934, Hollywood's self-censorship strictures kept even married couples in separate beds on screen. I know it sounds pretentious, but Deadwood really does put me in mind of Shakespeare. It's rhythmic and profane and powerful in a way that maintains incredible dignity in, and even outright pride at, the lawlessness of the rapidly-vanishing frontier of the 1870s. Deadwood portrays a society being built from the ground up, and it'd seem no less basically true in any other frontier setting, past or future. I like that. Like Shakespeare, it can be timeless; strip away the details of time and place, and you've still got a very human story about good, evil, and the grey area in-between much widened by the absence of civil society. To find fault with it on the basis of the ubiquitous profanity is to miss the point entirely; that's just an attention-grabbing tactic, for a work that's what tends to be charmingly called "bawdy" when the right name is on the cover or in the credits. I'm sure the real-life residents of Deadwood, South Dakota never used quite the language (NSFW, probably) put in the mouths of their fictional counterparts. But odds are they didn't speak so poetically, or in occasional expository soliloquys, either. I can live with both fictions. (Via TV Tattle.)


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