True Grit

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GUNSLINGERS: Carradine, left, and Olyphant pack heat; below, series creator Milch

As its hooves thunder on the horizon, HBO's Deadwood (Sundays, 10 p.m. E.T.; debuts March 21) might seem like the cavalry coming to rescue viewers affronted by Janet Jackson's Super Bowl flash. Something innocent! Something wholesome! A nice western!

Sorry, pardner. In the opening minutes of the series, about a true-life gold rush town, a prospector says he's "f___ed up [his] life flatter 'n hammered s___," while the legendary Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) calls her associates "ignorant f___in' c__ts." Land o' Goshen! Has nobody in this burg heard of "consarnit" or "tarnation"?

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Ask creator David Milch whether pioneers in 1876 really swore like the Sopranos, and the former Yale instructor quotes Geoffrey Chaucer's 14th century The Miller's Tale, which used the same anatomical slur that Calamity Jane does (though, in Middle English, it started with a q). Milch says most of our high-megaton profanities are centuries old, and accounts of the West "are full of the testimony of people whose sensibilities have been scandalized by the resourcefulness of the human spirit in fitting so many obscenities in the most ordinary declarative sentence." This, he says, was the point: Deadwood, S.D., was outside the bounds of the U.S., the law and propriety — just as Milch is now beyond the long reach of the ABC censors who dogged him on NYPD Blue, the show he created with Steven Bochco. Take a group of criminals and scofflaws, mostly men, risking ruin or murder to seek their fortunes — who then blow said fortunes on hookers, craps, dope and booze — and in any century, their epithets will be frequent and stronger than "dagnabbit!"

Really, the language issue is a stand-in for a bigger question. There have been other dark and complicated takes on the western — Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove — but they, like westerns themselves in recent years, have been as occasional as tumbleweeds. We still associate the genre with the moral simplicity and cliche of its heyday: straight-shooting, black and white hats. (When President Bush said he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," he wasn't going for relativism.) Are we ready for the genre of John Wayne and Shane to get the gray-hatted HBO treatment?

Milch says he set out not to write a western but to explore a society just starting to form its laws. He first pitched to HBO a series about cops in Rome during Nero's reign. After that project fizzled, he started reading about Deadwood, a town that sprang up when reports of a gold strike were hyped to justify expansion into Indian territory. "It was like time-lapse photography," he says. "Two months before [Deadwood begins], there was nothing. Two years later, they had telephones, before San Francisco did." The settlement had no laws, purposely. "It was a primordial soup," Milch says. "How do people organize themselves, absent law?"

For starters, by killing one another. In this and other surface ways, Deadwood is like many westerns. There's a bad guy, saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), who lives large by relieving the locals of their gold nuggets and having his thugs plant a bowie knife in anyone who gets in his way. But he is threatened when — yes — strangers ride into town. Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) is a former marshal with plans to open a hardware store. He's less a good guy than a control freak. In his last act as marshal, he hangs a horse thief without trial, so a mob won't get the satisfaction of lynching him. Does he want to serve justice or just give chaos the finger? The impetus to law, Deadwood suggests, is as much one as the other.

Meanwhile, renowned shootist Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) has come to town with his retinue. (Most of the leading characters are based on real people.) To Swearengen, the formula is simple: former lawman + gunfighter = nascent police force, especially when the two stumble on a massacre-robbery perpetrated by "road agents" working for him. It seems, though, that Bullock just wants to kick his law habit and make a dollar, and Hickok, to drink and gamble his way into oblivion. "Hickok was acutely aware of his time having passed," says Carradine. "He had outlived his usefulness." Throw in abused prostitute Trixie (Paula Malcomson); Alma Garret, a laudanum-addicted lady from back East (Molly Parker); and E.B. Farnum, a hotel owner and Swearengen's beaten-cur sycophant (William Sanderson, Newhart's Larry), and you have a typical — if dysfunctional — horse-opera cast.

Deadwood HBO-izes this material, though, not just in its profanity but in its moral ambiguity and social criticism. The show is like McCabe for more reasons than that it involves whorehouses and business conflicts. Like the '70s movies of Altman, Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola and others, HBO's dramas rework popcorny genre formats (the cop drama, the Mob flick) with dark, even cynical themes: that institutions are corrupt, that people and systems and families will screw you over, that heroes are never entirely heroic or villains alone in their villainy. Deadwood wants to show not just how the West was won, but who won, what they got and how the process mirrors our time.

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