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Cinemax’s newest series The Knick, created by Steven Soderbergh, and starring Clive Owen, began its first episode with a graphic intensity that stunned many viewers. Subsequent episodes have promised many conflicts in the premise of a (fictionalized) privately funded Knickerbocker Hospital, located in one of the poorer neighborhoods of 1900s New York, while its philanthropist sponsors force Chief Surgeon John Thackeray (Clive Owen) to “integrate” the staff by hiring an eminently trained black surgeon Algernon Edwards (André Holland) as his Assistant Chief Surgeon. Though the show still has some weaknesses so far, its strengths make it one of the best dramas in years, setting it right next to the debut season of HBOs True Detective and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful with its writing, acting, and setting.
Warning: Spoilers Abound
If you aren’t watching Cinemax’s The Knick (new episodes Fridays 8p.m. ET, with reruns all week long), you’re missing one of the finest and most compelling dramas since HBOs Deadwood.
And that show can’t be beat.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of its award-winning & critically acclaimed series Deadwood, HBO had a marathon of all 3 seasons (36 episodes) on a weekend in March, and weeknights in April and May. Though we have the DVD collection, I hadn’t watched it since it originally aired from 2004-2006. What a mistake. Viewing it again during April and May, I realized just how magnificent a show it is. Even 10 years later, it was as exciting and fresh as ever.
Created, produced, and mostly written by David Milch, Deadwood explores the growth of Deadwood SD in the 1870s, before and after its annexation by the Dakota Territory. Previously, Deadwood was on land ceded to the Native Americans, so whites were on it illegally; once gold was discovered in the Black Hills, however, whites went there in droves while the government turned its back on any treaty violations.
The Cast & Characters
Great cast playing fascinating characters, some of whom were really in Deadwood SD, make Deadwood a standout series. The fictional characters are mixed with historical ones: Gem Saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane),
Hardware-store owner & Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant, L) and his partner Sol Star (John Hawkes, R),
Wild Bill Hickock (Keith Carradine),
and Calamity Jane (Robin Wiegert)
are just a few of the historical personages who interact with fictional ones in this great drama.
Most of the cast members have gone on to star in other important series and films. Dayton Callie, who plays Charlie Utter,
stars in Sons of Anarchy, Timothy Olyphant in Justified, Paula Malcolmson, who plays Trixie the whore, stars in Ray Donovan as his wife,
and Anna Gunn, who plays Seth’s wife Martha, went on to star in Breaking Bad as Skyler.
Some cast members were stars when they arrived, like Ian McShane as Al Swearengen — creator David Milch has said he wrote the character with McShane in mind — Powers Boothe as rival saloon/brothel owner Cy Tolliver,
Gerald McRaney as George Hearst,
Brad Dourif as Doc Cochran,
and William Sanderson, in the best role he’s ever had, as scheming sycophant E. B. Farnum,
while Deadwood propelled others to international celebrity status. The cast alone makes the show worth watching. I can’t think of another series, besides The Tudors, that consistently had such a stellar cast, all with outstanding performances.
Integration of Dramatic Elements
So many writers and shows fail because the dialogue, character development, and action are all presented as separate entities. Long monologues interrupt action. Character studies could be entirely eliminated or replaced by commercial breaks without losing anything. Not so in Deadwood, where the language and character development are not only integral to the action, but where the action itself evolves from the language and the characters themselves.
This scene, where Gem Saloon owner and brothel-master Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) insults Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Bullock) who is married (his wife hasn’t arrived yet) but is sexually involved with widowed Alma Garrett (fictional), whose gold-claim Al Swearengen covets, vividly demonstrates the integration of all three elements: dialogue, character development, and action (plot). When Al Insults Bullock.
The Language & Writing
Yes, there’s lots of obscenity on Deadwood, but there’s also language so poetic, it sounds like some of the best Shakespearean lines ever written. And the actors say it all so naturally. I guess that’s just what really good actors do. Still, the writing itself does allow the actors to ascend to the realm of poetry, even when they’re arguing. This clip contains a montage, and the first four minutes are mostly funny because it’s so many of the characters cussing, but then you get to see the poetry and beauty of the language in Deadwood.
Even in its most serious situations, Deadwood was filled with humor. Some of it made me laugh aloud, the first time I viewed it, and during the 10th anniversary marathon. I honestly don’t know how some of the actors did their lines without laughing through the entire scenes. This one, where Chinese “Boss” Mr Wu (Leone Young) is attempting to tell Al Swearengen, whom Wu calls “Swi-jen,” is one of the classics. Wu tells Al about the “CockSuckas.”
The show was cancelled far too early — after its third season — when, clearly, future seasons were planned by the creator/writer David Milch and by the actors. HBO gives various reasons for the cancellation, the most oft-cited is that “Deadwood, as a costume-drama, was too expensive to produce.” Ian McShane was known to respond to that by saying that his character wore the same suit and long underwear through all 3 seasons, while his whores wore basically nothing at all.
Bravo, Ian, for showing such a ridiculous cancellation of a fine series for what it was: A mistake. One which HBO still regrets.
As for me, I’m not waiting another 10 years to watch the entire series again. It’s going to become an annual ritual, at the very least. After all, I have the boxed-set of the DVDs.
Being able to watch the magnificent series Deadwood any time I want makes either subscription worth its price.