What many, if not most, if not all, viewers will notice first about HBO's new western series "Deadwood" is its language, which is filthy. And while there's no question that obscenity has become the easy recourse of the lazy screenwriter, series creator David Milch -- a published poet who taught English at Yale for several years before he began to write for television -- is too particular about words to use them gratuitously. He was a student of Robert Penn Warren, "who taught that you build it word by word, and that you understand word by word -- because it was the way life worked, moment to moment, and language was the signification of the process."
Milch, who also co-created "NYPD Blue," may be the hardest-thinking man in show business. His series are in a sense merely shadows of the bigger ideas burning in his brain.
Take the short-lived "Big Apple," which was named, Milch has said, not for its New York City setting but "for the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil." Whereas most of us would have understood the 2001 CBS series to be a police procedural, if perhaps an unusually complex one, to Milch it was about "how information does or does not become understanding."
"Deadwood," which you are free to regard as simply an involving multithread tale of bad guys and better guys set during the last great gold strike in the continental United States, is likewise set on a deeper foundation. Milch had first pitched HBO a cop show set in Nero's Rome, a place and time without actual law. "I was interested in how those who were assigned to enforce order proceeded in the absence of any law," Milch says. But the network was working on another Roman series, and network head man Chris Albrecht suggested there might be other eras that would serve his theme. "So this seemed like an analogous situation, because Deadwood was a community that explicitly renounced law."
For Milch, who "had no particular experience or expertise in that period," the real-world particulars of Deadwood were a "constructive fortuity, in that I don't believe I would have been as comfortable starting with a wholly imagined environment." Built on land that by treaty belonged to the Sioux, it was an illegal, ungoverned outlaw settlement, marked by what Milch calls "a kind of libertine anarchy." "The town itself imposed itself on my imagination," he says, "it was such a strange amalgam of different kinds of criminality."
At the historic-in-itself Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio in Newhall, the production team has "pretty exactly replicated" Deadwood as it was in July 1876, just a few months into its life. The federal troops that had been keeping the prospectors away withdrew in March, "and then they came in like locusts."
"There was nothing there in March of '76; in November of 1877 they had telephones. They had telephones before San Francisco had telephones. That town is like a time-lapse study of the American experience -- it was an accelerated enactment not only of the original sin of the American expansion, but the entire process of American history sort of took place there in five years."
Deadwood also came with a ready-made cast of characters. "There are three or four characters [in the series] that ought to have existed, is the way I would put it," Milch says with a laugh. "But the vast majority were real." These include vice merchant Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), sheriff turned businessman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and his partner-in-hardware Sol Star (John Hawkes); Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigart). "And Merrick, the newspaper publisher [played by Jeffrey Jones]; E.B. Farnum [William Sanderson], the sleazeball who ran the Grand Central Hotel -- those are real people.
"I studied pretty hard on them," Milch says. "Merrick was a wonderfully florid hypochondriac, so certainly I felt I knew everything about his digestive processes by the time I began. Bullock became Theodore Roosevelt's best friend later, and so there was pretty exhaustive stuff about him. Sol Star served 10 terms as mayor, so there were pretty good records about him. And Hickok -- there is no dearth of material about him."
Milch also "hung around with rodeo cowboys for about three months, 'cause they're sort of like walking ghosts -- they're people who for eight seconds every week get to live in the 19th century, they get to ride the bronco or the bull. There's a big rodeo in Deadwood, and we all went up there. Watching them come alive was a kind of epiphany, and all those guys are in the show, they're just wonderful."
Regarding the obscenity that is the lingua franca of the series -- more bad words than you can shake a seven-second delay at -- Milch "began with the uncontradicted documentation on the part of everyone who had anything to do with Deadwood, that the language was -- almost it would seem by conscious decision -- almost unthinkably obscene," Milch says. "H.L. Mencken wrote that language of the West was a rejection of the strictures of Eastern orthodoxy; the further west, the more profane and obscene it became. [It's] a way of saying, 'I accept fewer rules than you do.' "
It is jarring at first, hearing words like -- well, you'll just have to imagine, or watch the show -- coming from the mouths of cowboys, given all those years of "Bonanza" and "Gunsmoke" and the almost Puritan rectitude of John Wayne and Gary Cooper. But language in "Deadwood" is not just a bid for authenticity; it's used to reveal character. Who curses to whom about what and when establishes their relationship to one another and to the world; each character has a carefully modeled way of speaking that changes according to circumstance.
As to how he arrived at the precise mix of terms, Milch has a detailed explanation involving Chaucer, 17th century dictionaries of slang, old legal proscriptions against certain words, and the way that the argot of the "undergroup" has to remain fluid -- "they have to keep changing the meaning of the words to exclude the dominant group. On the other hand, to the extent that there are certain ideas that the undergroup accepts that the dominant group has no interest in co-opting, those terms stay consistent. So that 'ho,' for example, is a term that may go in and out of vogue. But [a familiar epithet denoting incestuous activity] stays pretty consistent, because Coca-Cola has no interest in co-opting the term."
And since in Deadwood "there was no particular premium on modifying the language to protect it from the dominant culture," Milch reasons that the usual "so-called four-letter words," with some familiar compound formulations, would have sufficed.
"I didn't want to turn it into some kind of exhibitionist lexicography; that wasn't the point. But I did feel that it was of the essence of these characters to speak in a particular way, for the same reason that an ape beats his chest so he doesn't have to beat the [anatomical reference] off of everybody in the troop every day."
"It was particularly important to me to have that available, because the vocabulary that's [traditionally] associated with the western -- for reasons that have nothing to do with historical accuracy -- tends to be laconic and almost exalted in its decency. And therefore the language, which is true to the period I'm trying to evoke, also becomes a kind of cleansing mechanism, as a way of separating the conventions of the genre of a previous time from what is living and appropriate to the story itself."
Listening to Milch, one hears the academic inside the artist, the social scientist who lives alongside the poet. It's what makes "Deadwood" so interesting -- that mix of drama and detachment. The series is neither sentimental about its characters, elegiac about the past, nor interested in promoting any particular view of morality so much as exploring, in a theatrical way, how community forms in a place where nothing is explicitly forbidden. Each character is defined in part by the limits he sets himself -- what he won't do. So even in the absence of law, society begins to take shape.
"That's why the character of Bullock was so interesting to me," Milch says, "because Bullock was as filled with rage as Swearengen but, because of a peculiarity of upbringing, he developed this kind of preternatural maturity in the way he carried himself; his nickname in Montana before he went over to Deadwood was 'Bishop.' And what he did was bind his rage to an idea of orderly behavior.... In the tragic paradoxes and inconsistencies of his behavior is the beginning of the genesis of the idea of order.
"One of the big themes [of the series] is that we're so much better collectively than we are individually.... If you go to any small town you see the sign in the town square, 'The Lions meet at 12, the Optimists at 1.' People are improvising ways to get together, to figure out how to live together.
"We are by nature a collective organism -- we misperceive our identity as individuals, while all the while finding our deepest satisfactions in the collective. And the discovery of the principle of organization that allows us to experience ourselves outside of ourselves is the opportunity for salvation, it seems to me."