I well remember the first time I saw Hill Street Blues. It was buried in the late night schedule, and it was several shows in before I stumbled on it. I remember I had a real Wow reaction. This was something special.
Back in the day there were several aspects to Hill Street that made it revolutionary: It was the first show where several characters, not just the lead, had their stories. It was the first show where you knew what the characters knew, and nothing more; there were no shots of the robbers pulling up outside the bank. It was the first show where things weren’t always tied up at the end of the episode…
You weren’t watching Hill Street — you were being dragged along, and you had to pay attention.
The Shield was another mold breaker, where the good guy was also rotten, where things are never going to be simple, and where you miss a lot of the detail, but you catch on by riding it out.
Fast forward to last year and I discovered Deadwood, and had another Wow reaction. Like Hill Street, Deadwood breaks the mold. Well, perhaps it doesn’t break it, but it does bend the results. Freed of the restraints of mainstream network television, Deadwood uses profanity, and nudity to take its story telling to a whole new level; not just because it can — but because, well, this is a shocking and often-times nasty place where you’re going. You have to experience the whole package.
The initial shock then, is the strong language. The second shock is also the language — just what the hell is it that they’re saying? But like listening to Shakespeare, you find that you do attenuate to it. Also Shakespeare-like is its frequent use of soliloquy, and its wry humor. Just delectable. Even secondary conversations between the more minor characters can be packed with depth, anguish; poetry even.
This place called Deadwood is a horrible place, and like in other, real, tough environments, the people who survive there are all characters of the material kind. They have pasts they can’t talk about, humor that’s earthy and sophisticated at the same time, and above all they survive through an un-spoken, strangely attractive nobility that binds them together.
Riveting, perplexing, compelling, great TV!