Return to Deadwood?

A TV Continuation I Could Get Behind

I have always considered it something of a mixed bag when any network, cable or streaming, decides to bring back a classic series in some format. I was elated to see Arrested Development return in any format, delighted (in the end) by the X-Files revival, and impressed by the new season of Twin Peaks earlier this year. But there’s just as likely a chance that the series will collapse — Curb Your Enthusiasm doesn’t seem to have much life to it, the newest incarnation of 24 was a disaster, and I think the world could have gone without another season of Prison Break.

It’s even harder to tell whether or not a film continuation of a TV series is something that will work or should even be attempted in the first place. Serenity brought closure to an unusual number of Firefly fans, and Fire Walk With Me is now considered a masterpiece. But did we really need a Sex and the City movie, let alone a third? And what convinced someone to give California a tax break to film the Entourage film was ridiculous.

But now it appears a film continuation of a series is coming that I would actually approve of, mainly because that it could deliver closure to a loyal group of fans who have been hoping for something to wrap it up since the series was killed too soon in 2005. It now appears that a movie version of Deadwood has finally moved beyond the conceptual stage, and may start filming for a late 2018 release.

A few words of explanation for those who may have missed its run. Deadwood was one of the series that helped lead TV into its current golden age. David Milch, the wunderkind behind Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue’s best work, creating the best version of a television western this century has ever had. Set in the South Dakota mining town in 1876, the series centered around several real characters who settled in that town, and helped it slouch towards civilization. At the center of the action were two magnificent characters Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), the owner of the Gem, corrupt, venial, bloodthirsty, and yet far more far-seeing than so many ‘civilized’ men, and Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), the easy to anger reluctant lawman, whose reluctant partnership would help bring the town forward.

Surrounding them was one the most extraordinary casts ever assembled, many of whom would launch their careers because of this series. The older hands were Brad Dourif, William Sanderson, John Hawkes, Brian Cox, and the late Powers Boothe. The series would launch the careers of Titus Welliver (Bosch), Paula Malcolmson (Ray Donavan,) Molly Parker (House of Cards), Kim Dickens (Fear the Walking Dead), and Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad). Many of them would do great work in other series, but few would match their performances here.

The series worked wonderfully for three seasons. Then, for reasons that have never been entirely clear, not even the showrunners and executives, Deadwood was cancelled after its third season was filmed, leaving so many of the storylines unfinished. We were promised two TV movies to wrap up the stories, and the possibility lingered until 2010 that they would come, but they never did. For that reason, HBO’s creative peak has never been the quite same since the series died. More importantly, despite how brilliant it was, Deadwood has never quite registered as being quite as great as the other two giants of HBO’s golden era: The Sopranos and The Wire. One ending was controversial, one was perfect, but at least there was an ending.

So the idea for closure for this series is an encouraging one that I would favor. And I’m glad to know it’s going to happen. However, there are several questions I have to ask:

First off, what will the script be like? For those who don’t know, there were no scripts for much of the Deadwood series. Milch would meet with his writers each day, they would discuss the filming, then he would tell the actors what scenes they would do, and scenes would typically be filmed out of order. Now, it’s one thing to do this for a series (God knows it worked spectacularly in the case of Deadwood); it’s harder to imagine it working for the movie. Then again, I may be over-thinking this part; Mike Leigh and Christopher Guest have made careers based on films like this.

More to the point, what will the movie be about? Part of the skill of Deadwood was that so much of the action took place over a compressed period of time: the typical episode would last a day. It’s hard to imagine Milch and company managing to wrap up everything about the series in a single film; it’s part of the reason I doubted even two TV movies could do it.

And then there’s the problem that was the greatest strength of Deadwood. The language. The amount of profanity that could be spoken by a character in a single speech was, frankly, awe-inspiring, even considering it was HBO. Milch took more abuse about the fact that all of the vulgarities were not anachronistic, and the plain truth is, after you got used to it, there was genuine poetry in it. What I don’t know is if the MPAA would be able to handle it. I don’t think any movie has managed to get an NC-17 rating just for profanity alone (and that’s before you add the high level of violence that was equally present), but it definitely seems like this would be a major challenge to the ratings board. Milch might be able to charm them into it, but it would be a harder sell than the people at HBO.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I desperately want a Deadwood movie. For years, I’ve been trying to get the nerve to write Deadwood fanfiction so I could come up with a final season that the series never got. I want closure, and lacking that, I want to spend time with so many of this infuriating, incredible characters in this Old West that Louis L’Amour never came close to illustrating. Still, I make this tremulous suggestion to HBO? Why not make a fourth season of Deadwood as well/instead? You owe it to Milch, you owe it to the viewers, and frankly, you owe to it yourself? You were more than willing to bring back for other seasons lesser shows (alright yes, The Comeback was clearly ahead of its time), and you have been willing to give wrapups for lesser series like Hello Ladies and Looking.

Would it be a struggle to get the cast back together? Olyphant, McShane, Welliver and Dickens are tied to other series, and it would have to be done without Cy Tolliver. But I have a feeling that if they would be willing to make this movie, they would be more than willing to make another season, much like the cast of Arrested Development was willing to drop everything to do a Season 5. All of them have said it was the greatest experience in the careers, and I can’t imagine they wouldn’t jump to get the band back together.

Come on, HBO. Things have never been quite the same for your network ever since you allowed the original series to die the death of a hundred cuts. And frankly, considering how abominably you treated Luck, you owe Milch a fair amount more. Let’s make this happen. And I don’t just ‘want you to tell me something pretty.’

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.