Sunday, April 10, 2005
You Have to Trust Someone
Is there any doubt that historians will some day consider the 10 years or so flanking the recent turn of the century and regard it as an astonishing acme in the art of TV? What will they call it, the age of HBO? I’ve only just seen the first handful of episdoes of the first season of Deadwood, and it’s everythign it’s cracked up to be. Speaking as someone who grew up believing that quality TV meant the Lou Grant show, I’m just amazed--and all the more so that Deadwood follows The Sopranos and the truly awesome The Wire. I hear 6 Feet Under is pretty good too. Incredible.
I’m sure people who understand the industry can explain why this fine turn of events is happening. But it’s also interesting to speculate from a position of sheer ignorance about some of the big themes the three dramas I’ve mentioned share. They’re all obviously about complex, extralegal commercial activities--conspiracy, in other words. Which is a gret and classic subject of drama, of course. But one wonders wehter it reflects something about the nature of the current TV racket. (Is making a TV series anything like running a mafia crew, by any chance?) And, more grandly, whether this isn’t the perfect expression of the new age of economic insecurity. In his innovative study New Deal Modernism Michael Szalay shows the way that, formally as well as thematically, much of the major lit of the ‘30s in the U.S. was concerned to imagine reliable forms of security--particularly as informal social networks had proven inadequate to the task. (In his view, in the U.S. the ‘30s weren’t a literary red decade at all. Writers were more interested in reliability, predicatability, and compensation than in revolution.) The HBO drama, by contrast, looks like an art form for the dog days of deregulation, unpredicatable income swings, and the assault on Social Security.
Deadwood in particular looks like executive producer David Milch had reading up on Richard Thaler, and I suppose Robert Putnam or Francis Fukuyama. The big theme--as always in the Western--is the relation between civilization and barbarism. But Milch’s innovation, if I appreciate it right, is to make this a story almost entirely about commerce. One of the interesting things about the program so far as Ive seen is that all of the major characters are merchants of some kind and that the prospectors who actually drove the growth of Deadwood are only background material--as if it were obvious that primitive accumulation doesn’t make for good drama. Similarly, the Sioux--"the heathen"--appear only as a kind of nagging bad conscience.
What really interests Milch, in other words, is not Regeneration Through Violence (or, if so, in a pretty subtle way), but the complicated interactions of markets, norms, and institutions.
Since it is in Indian territory, Deadwood has no law. And since everyone there has come to get rich quick, the entire population is made up of people who at least aspire to be rational maximizers of utility. The big story is the way in this moral vacuum, a working community can be built from the ground up.
The values are pretty much straight bourgeois. The good guys want fair dealing, honest profits, order and neighborliness. The bad guys are utterly rapacious. What makes the program so fine--apart from the skill and subtlety with which this contrast is dramatized--is the way, as in the best genre fiction, all the distinctions get blurry.
One nice touch is that almost no one is homo economicus. Even the most determined utility maximizers are limited, as Thaler says, by bounded rationality and bounded self-interest. I particularly like the way even a greedy, grovelling little pig like the loathsome E. B. Furnham will put his profits, and his life, at risk in an effort to hold onto a little dignity. He’s a little like Tiny Duffy from All the King’s Men. Even the most craven boot licker will pass up sure profit so as not to feel, as Furnham pretty much says, like the complete instrument of someone else’s will. (It’s Furham who, pleading for his own life, speaks what could be the show’s motto--you have to trust someone.) And then there’s the prostitute Trixie, who almost unaccountably puts her own life at risk for days to help a woman she resents and dislikes--and for good reason. But the story goes the other way too. Our hero, Seth Bullock, claims he’ll be satisfied when property rights come to Deadwood. But that’s clearly not enough for him. He’s an inveterate norm enforcer--a natural born cop. And not only will he suspend his business enterprise to punish wrongdoers. His instinctive desire to mete out justice will lead him to some unsavory behavior. Alongside the greed and rapacity, in other words, there are moments of charity, benevolence, and decency in Deadwood. But there’s also some of what Stephen Holmes would call “selfless cruelty.”
I suppose all I’m saying is that Deadwood is damn good drama. Add to all this stuff that we intuitively know that even the good guys in Deadwood are consciously determined to rob the Sioux--and that whether they want to do this gently or viciously won’t make much of a difference--and you get a wondeful example of the combination of gripping narrative and moral complexity. The stuff that’s been disappearing from Hollywood flics and serious fiction since the 70s.
Deadwood fans who haven’t read the recent New Yorker profile of David Milch should get it if they can. The man’s life has been to say the least out of the ordinary: Prize protege of Robert Penn Warren at Yale, seemingly bound for academic and/or literary stardom, then a rather hapless drug addict and occasional dealer, then a successful writer for Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and now Deadwood, his summa. The language this season (the second) has been described as verging on Shakespearean. I’m not sure that’s right, but he’s clearly drawn more widely on his literary background than he has in the past.
I haven’t seen Deadwood yet, but a general comment seems called for here…
Many years ago, a friend of mine--whose father was in television--remarked among several of us drinking and talking of writing that, “no one writes better than tv writers now.”
At the time, I thought it was drunken apostasy, but as he explained it (and I have reflected on it over the years), there’s something to it: who else has the time, resources, and, (yes--it matters) pressure to develop great characters anymore--all while offering top dollar for talent--than television? All the old markets for fiction have dried up… and what does even a strong midlist fiction advance get you? So: is it really such a surprise that television attacts such talent? Not to say a lot of that talent isn’t wasted on crap, but there’s some good stuff out there--stuff that’s better than all but the very best of literary fiction.
As for Deadwood: I’ll wait for the DVDs—I have no pressure to see the shows in the instant, and it’s cheaper to buy the DVDs than to subscribe on a monthly basis.
Like Joel, I’m of the sans HBO class.
Still, it might be true about TV right now. Along these lines, I would put in a plug for Lost, which started quite well (though it recently seems to have lost its way). It became interesting when the inhabitants on the island split into two factions. One side consists of industrious, Crusoe-ian “Puritans,” who stay near the beach, hunting boar on occasion, but more importantly, they start a farm, and build a raft to get off the island as soon as possible.
The others stay in a cave at the dark heart of the evil place, and spend their days searching the interior for clues about the mystery of the 4 8 15 16 23 42… They’re not quite decadents; they’re more like Romanticists. Watching the show, one has to side with these Romanticists, with their supersitions and quests. But why do I have a feeling that, were I a character, I would be on the beach, Building the Raft?
So: no economicus, but a sharp, and interesting image of a philosophically divided society.
I’m sure that, unlike Deadwood, which doesn’t sound like a sensationalist ratings-getter, Lost will end in a muddle of surprise endings and cliffhangers for season 2. For now, however, I’m enjoying it. Mostly.
”... an astonishing acme ...”
It depends where your TV sits. Since the mid-1960s, British television’s been more stable and more adventurous than the British film industry. Some of the work produced by the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 has never been bettered, even by the writers themselves (Dennis Potter and Ken Loach, for example).
Writing opportunities in American television have been more miss or hit, series by series, even season by season. “The Simpsons” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” are writer-centric; FOX, WB, and UPN certainly aren’t.
It’s true that HBO in the ‘00s may be the closest we’ve come to the British model.
Joel, Amardeep, the first season is on DVD. That’s how I got to see as much as I have. The beauty of Netflix. I’m of the sans cable and almost entirely sans broadcast class. One channel. I’ll probably never get to see Lost.
no hbo? what are you cultural critics doing with your money, buying books? that’s so 1990s!
it will be interesting to see if your views change as you catch up with the show. i thought it began very strong and then devolved almost immediately into self-parody. the second half of the first season and the first few episodes of the second season were more like soap opera than anything--but it has been improving of late. here are my recent comments on it from another blog (http://www.highlyirrelevant.com/movies/):
“i have to admit it has got a lot better–the last two episodes were really good. i did like swearengen better in the first half of season 1 before they decided to redeem him but regardless, mcshane is on his way to creating one of the most indelible characters in recent memory. unless the writers fuck it up and turn him into the camp’s philanthropist. i like that race is being foregrounded a little more (if barely) but do find it strange that a warts and all approach to the old west like “deadwood” is yet to really depict the effect all of what’s being shown here has on the native americans in the region. in some ways most of the “as it really was” revisionist accounts of the west seem to really be “as it really was for the white folks”.
speaking of realism, what do those of you who watch make of the language on the show? i don’t mean the swearing but the almost courtly nature of the speech. is this meant to be realistic or is it meant to be deliberately stylized to achieve a different kind of aesthetic effect (a la mamet)? i can’t tell–john wayne sure didn’t speak this way. “
Never thought I’d see Szalay’s book evoked in comparison to Deadwood; however, I’m a little confused about how you’re applying his thesis to Deadwood (which I admit to having not yet seen, so this analysis is predicated entirely on what I’ve read here). Michael’s writing about an artistic response to a top-down reorganization of society; Deadwood seems to be about the creation of institutions from the bottom up. I understand (I think) that the comparison you set up is between the New Deal works Michael discusses and contemporary neo-liberal culture and Deadwood; but what I find even more striking is that both work according to the logic Dewey lays out (and Michael quotes) in The Public and Its Problems. “Society,” Dewey says, “must always be rediscovered.” Furthermore, “Indirect, extensive, enduring and serious consequences of conjoint and interacting behavior call a public into existence having a common interest in controlling these consequences.”
Despite its status as a textbook example of late Dewey’s awful prose, I think what he says here applies equal to the situation Szalay describes and to the one in Deadwood. (Dewey is trying to recreate society from the bottom-up in The Public and Its Problems, so its applicability isnt’ all that surprising.) What really strikes me as interesting, if I’m understanding you correctly, is the imaginative investment in the creation of a new social order (such as the New Deal) takes the same form as its defense (figuratively speaking) on Deadwood. It points to the extent to which FDR and the Dealers’ institutions had been undermined before a cultural response could be mustered. It’s almost as if Deadwood (as I understand) isn’t so much defending these institutions--pointing to their necessity to the day-to-day lives of contemporary Americans--so much as attempting to call them back into existence.
(Of course, I could be completing misreading this thread, given that I haven’t seen Deadwood.)
FWIW, I’m thinking that William Flesch’s Comeuppance (Harvard UP 2007) would speak to Deadwood, seeing as its about keeping score, and meting out reward and punishment in the human community.