On one of the writing lists I am on, the subject of language has come up during the last few days. Not so much in the terms of cussing, but in whether or not it is appropriate anymore in fiction to use derogatory racist terms. Some responders felt very strongly that, no matter the time period the story was set in, modern day political correctness should take precedent and such language simply couldn’t and shouldn’t ever be used. Others seemed to feel that if the story was set in the distant past, such terms could be used though they went on to argue that if the story was set in the current time such terms could not be used to reflect a character’s beliefs.
I am not sure where I draw the line on the issue. It would be in one place as a reader, in another as a writer, and most likely in another if I was editing things again. I also believe the media platform has something to do with all this. I can see having a character say one thing in a book and having the same thing appear somewhat toned down online where those I work with and others can more easily find it and pass judgment. Many folks that aren’t creative don’t understand that just because we envision a character saying or doing something it does not mean that we personally are capable of saying or do something. It is called “Fiction” for a reason though many folks don’t seem to get that point.
Having recently watched “Deadwood: Season One” on DVD via my local library the online discussion was timely. What many would consider filthy language drives this series and can come as a bit of a shock at first to the viewer. Created by David Milch of NYPD fame, this is a series that never could have run on the over the air networks.
“A Hell Of A Place To Make Your Fortune” is the tagline as well as a very good description of the series and the camp known as Deadwood. Set in 1876 in South Dakota the land is harsh and so are the living conditions for nearly everyone. Men are men, women are usually prostitutes, and pigs do what they do best—get rid of the bodies.
Timothy Olyphant (starring these days in Justified on FX) is Seth Bullock. Once a lawman in Montana, he left and headed to Deadwood along with his friend and business partner, Sol Star (John Hawkes). Together they plan on leaving law enforcement behind in favor of running their own hardware store. Their primary customer will be the miners and others who are mining and panning for gold in the hills and streams outside the camp known as Deadwood.
In modern terms, Al Swearengen (played by Ian McShane) is basically the local crime boss and unofficial mayor of the camp. The camp exists on land owned by no one, controlled by no outside entity, a place where Al Swearengen is the lord and master of the manor and everyone else are his feudal servants. Al runs the local bar and brothel known as “The Gem” and suffers from the same problem Tony Soprano frequently went crazy over- competent help is so hard to find.
Further complications are added by Cy Tolliver coming to town bringing the game of craps, numerous prostitutes and an agenda of his own with the “Bella Union.” Not to mention an outbreak of smallpox, an elaborate con game involving the worth of a mining claim, the death of Wild Bill Hickok and numerous other secondary storylines and characters.
While some have commented quite favorably on the Calamity Jane character, I find her rather annoying and of little substance in the series. Instead Doc Cochran, played by Brad Douriff, intrigues me far more. There is a lot of understated acting in his role as well as complexity that, for this viewer at least, is far more interesting.
What makes this series work, among other things, is the fact that David Milch doesn’t allow clichés and stereotypes to rule the day. For example, Seth Bullock has always tried to do the right thing. After his brother was killed, he married his brother’s widow to take care of her and the son they had. In so doing, he has set himself up for incredible pain, when he begins to fall for, Alma Garret, who is quickly made a widow herself. Not to mention that his temper occasionally erupts when he has been pushed too far and in extremely violent ways. All that means that Seth is a flawed character at his core struggling to do the very best he can day in and day out with fate that ultimately he may be powerless to prevent much like a Greek tragedy.
I’ll leave it to others to address the historical accuracy of the series after pointing out that this is fiction and liberties are always taken. The cursing level in the series is extremely high along with frequent racial and gender slurs. The times weren’t politically correct and the series reflects that on a minute by minute basis. This is not a series for children and there are plenty of adults who will not be interested in watching it just because of the language.
I obtained my copy from the local library system. The complete first season set also contained a DVD of bonus material on the series discussing the making of the series, the language and other related items. Unfortunately there is not a blooper reel included. I would have very much like to have seen that as I expect there are some very funny outtakes. However, to have included that would be far different than the tone of the series which is usually somber and grim with very few wise cracks.
My wife and I first tried this a couple years ago and only made it about twenty minutes before giving up. Having been raised on westerns (both TV series and movies) I thought I knew what this series would be like going in. However, I didn’t and dumped it then instead of sticking with it despite her vehement objections.
Thanks to being home on medical leave and at my breaking point with day time television, at my request, my wife picked this up for me a few weeks ago with the understanding that she wouldn’t watch it. Since the point was to give me something to occupy my mind while everyone was gone each day, I gladly agreed. Once again, I noticed how slow things were to get going, but this time I resolved to watch at least the first several episodes to give it a real chance.
By the end of episode two I was hooked. If you can handle the often very harsh language and the occasional glimpse of female nudity, which may or may not be attractive depending on your own personal standards, I think you will quickly find yourselves hooked too.
Kevin R. Tipple © 2010