When David Milch was co-creating “NYPD Blue” with Steven Bochco in 1993, the pair saw it as an opportunity to push boundaries, while keeping true to the job of the men and women in blue. Network standards and practices had a field day trying to strike down both the language and bare asses.
On “Deadwood,” Milch’s pre-cop, pre-law days on the plains of the Old West, he’s taking blue to a whole new level. Dialogue that regularly includes “F bombs” and full-frontal shots are not used for shock value but, rather, for authenticity.
To which HBO execs are saying, “Hell, yeah” (but most likely, in a Milch world, with a lot more expletives attached).
With “Sex and the City” having signed off — and “The Sopranos” about ready to enjoy its last bowl of pasta — the cabler was in need of another hit series. “Deadwood” proved a bonafide hit, renewed for a sophomore season after just its second episode.
“I was delighted when I found out,” says Milch of the pickup. “That’s the way HBO operates. They let you know early. It’s tough enough to do a series without uncertainty from your bosses.”
Milch originally approached HBO about a series centering on Julius Caesar’s Rome but the cabler was a step ahead of him, with a skein already in the works. So topper Chris Albrecht and Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment — wanting to work with Milch in any way possible — suggested tackling the Old West.
“They proposed the environment of a Western,” Milch explains. “When I was growing up, there were the classical Westerns and the Howard Hawks Westerns, which were already done. I watched more of the Hopalong Cassidy Westerns, which was less compelling, so I came tardily to an appreciation.”
Among the ways Milch researched the project was by going to Deadwood, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He spent countless hours in the museum to learn about the town, which in 1876 was set on Indian Territory, and the characters who inhabited it.
Starring Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane and William Sanderson, “Deadwood” has drawn raves from critics. Washington Post columnist Tom Shales calls it “daringly gritty and fervently unflinching” while Variety’s Brian Lowry refers to it as HBO’s “next great dramatic addiction.”
Milch credits the actors for taking their characters and raising the intensity up a notch.
“This is absolutely not how I envisioned it but that’s been a blessing,” he says about the transformation from script to set. “When actors bring different dimensions and colors of performance, you’re lucky if that sort of thing happens.
“For Tim’s character (Bullock), he was conceived as someone who would find his voice over time. He was in flight from himself. For Al (Swearengen), he kind of sprang full blown. He came out the way he was.”
And, as any cocksucker could easily see, there’s little debating that.
Best episode: “Here Was a Man.” Wild Bill Hickok’s luck runs out at a poker game.
Most complex character and why: Al Swearengen. Heinous enough to slit the throat of anyone who disagrees with him, yet very sensitive about the difference in using the terms “free” vs. “gratis.”
What should happen next season: The girl who nearly died and lost her family recalls the incident, which has dire implications for Swearengen.