Vampires and Cowboys
I never liked vampires. The whole vampire genre, it seemed to me, was made for sex-starved girls and self-obsessed high school goths. Then I met Buffy.
Buffy the Vampire slayer, by Joss Whedon, was great television, if you haven’t heard. Smart, funny, dramatic, and very very real. Yaknow, as real as a girl dusting vamps can be.
I was a closeted Buffy fan for years. I even furtively followed Angel as he left Sunnydale for his own spinoff in LA. The noir style and male protagonist finally brought me out of hiding. I was a Buffy/Angel fan. Joss Whedon was my hero. And that was okay.
The twin Whedon shows took a universe of cliches and silly stereotypes and turned it into something with meaning. The monsters were metaphors for life, the demons were made more human with each new episode.
Most subversively, Joss had turned me, and many like me, into a fans of the genre. I’m so far gone now, I might even go see Van Helsing when it comes out. Lord help me.
And now, with Buffy ended, Angel finishing its last season, and Whedon’s stillborn sci-fi western Firefly confined to a box of DVDs and the future promise of the silver screen, I’ve been feeling a little restless. Will there ever be another? Could there ever be?
Send in the cowboys.
I used to joke that HBO was the sex and death channel. Now, with Sex and the City gone, it’s mostly the death channel. On HBO I get to watch gangsters in New Jersey kill each other, dust bowl carnies kill each other, and a Southern California mortuary bury them all. Now you can add Deadwood to that list, where you get to watch lawless cowboys kill each other in 1876. There’s so much killing, in fact, the Deadwood website keeps a tally.
The series is only four episodes in, but already something has changed. See, I never liked cowboys. Not even a little. Cowboys were the bastion of little boys who liked to beat up other little boys. I never even liked playing cowboy as a kid. I’d probably have preferred to be an Indian, anyway.
Deadwood is threatening to do for cowboys what Buffy did for vampires. In Deadwood, the cowboys are not noble, and not one of them has a white hat and a pointy star. In fact, in the very first episode, we meet our protagonist, Seth Bullock, as he’s taking off his sheriff’s star and handing it to someone else, with the hanging corpse of a criminal still swinging behind him. His days as a law man are over.
We watch as Seth comes to the Deadwood, a town technically outside of the reach of the new United States. As he establishes relationships in the town, we meet the evil overlord Al Swearengen, his henchmen, prostitutes, a morally ambivalent doctor, and more. But the most interesting relationship he forms is with the famous gunslinger, Wild Bill Hickok.
In a town full of mistrust and baser instincts, the relationship between these two former men of justice was a bright point, and just about the only reference you could find to the typical western genre. Wild Bill was a complicated man, weighed down by addictions to booze and cards, but he had a quiet goodness about him. The scenes he shared with our protagonist Seth were notable for what was communicated between them in very few words.
“There’s a man behind me who intends to do me harm,” Wild Bill says to Seth in the bar in episode 2. And without discussion, Seth has Bill’s back when the man makes his move. “He drew first,” Seth says, even though his back was turned.
Seth had Bill’s back ever since. Untill, of course, last night’s episode, when the babbling nincompoop Bill had beaten in poker walked up behind him and fired. Bang. Just like that, Wild Bill is dead.
What kind of a show would spend its first four episodes building up a character, just to gun him down like that? A groundbreaking show. A show that aims to redefine a genre. A Whedon show.
Deadwood has a way to go before it’s going to occupy that special place in my heart next to Joss Whedon’s shows. But after just four episodes, I can pay it the highest compliment I can think of: It reminds me of Whedon’s work. And in a television landscape soon to be without any Whedon shows at all, that’s the most I can ask for.
UPDATE: This story is now featured at TeeVee.org. Yay!