Some people are inherently drawn to historical dramas of various times. I think it’s a yearning for a different time, simpler, where one man could make a difference. I’m not among these people. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a gladiator movie. The Western, as a form, is not particularly attractive to me, although I’m not so biased that I will overlook a particularly good story that happens to be in that genre (Unforgiven, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Blazing Saddles, Destry Rides Again), but I don’t go “ooh, a Western!” In general, most historical items either make me feel like I’m missing things because I’m not well-versed in history, or make me feel like I’m being talked down to because they are being overbearingly unsubtle about things I already know.
I’m afraid this disinterest has carried over to the summer television season. I sampled the new cable series Into The West, and it was all too… important. The most mystical Native American, the baddest badass trailblazers. It just didn’t feel too human.
And I didn’t get too excited by ABC’sEmpire, the tale of a freed gladiator who will play some major part in the shaping of the Roman Empire. The most interesting character was Julius Ceaser, and I don’t think that I’m giving too much away to note that he’s not likely to be back after the first episode.
But I have just finished watching the first season of Deadwood on DVD, and that’s worth seeing. It’s not a western about violence; there are moments of harsh violence, but they are few and far between. And despite the well-publicized profanity in the work, it’s not about the profanity (although to answer the yet-unasked question: it doesn’t annoy me, because it’s used well. The actors are good enough that it reflects appropriate things about the character, whether it is naturally buried in their sentences or whether it is a scream for attention.) Deadwood is about the introduction of civilization; the titular town is seeking proper government recognition. And it reflects something real, that such transitions are not made in smooth and clean manner by smooth and clean people. In a way, the villain of the piece is actually the good guy, a he is the one who will make this transition work.
The show manages that big picture thematic material quite well. It also handles the details nicely – the acting is all quite good, occasionally astounding. The writing goes to the core of the characters.
So the show looks good through the telescope and through the microscope. Alas, it’s not quite so good when actually viewed on the TV. The actual storylines suffer somewhat. Two folks come into town with the overtone of having some wily grift going on… but not so much. A widow’s wavering decision about leaving town ends up in an interesting place, but the amount of wavering just serves to make most of what builds up to that ending uninteresting. It doesn’t all pull together. The series strengths make it worthwhile, but its weaknesses keep it from greatness.