The technology of the TV mini-series

The “tv mini-series” is a (to me) new narrative vehicle, 100% televisual and when done well, instantly engrossing.  Many years after their heyday, I am discovering these many-chaptered, multi-year series, and seeing how they merit comparison with Dickens or Trollope, or Tolstoy, with their engaging, realistic characters working out personal struggles in an ensemble. In one or several of the cast members,  the viewer sees something of him/herself. Identification happens, a bond sets. It resonates with the audience’s reality, and so artistically “wins,” but it also gains the series followers, and so in economic terms, the show “succeeds.”

In the first HBO series I ordered on Netflix, Tremé, the struggling folks left in Katrina’s wake 2005-07 are the subjects. Besides my fascination with NOLA, the characters on Tremé are compromised morally, complex, intriguing individuals except for one or two clowns.  My favorite character, respectable in every other sense, happens to be a killer. Yet I impatiently await the release of season 2 on DVD, but not as much as I have anticipated Deadwood or the other series I’ve seen, the Wire.

And in HBO’s the Wire (which I am only in season two of watching right now), the cops act criminally, the crooks act virtuously, and everyone of the major characters is interestingly drawn, as flawed people whom the audience member will recognize. The bond occurs, and an audience is won thereby. This is how the mini-series works.

A few of the engaging characters worth mentioning in Deadwood are masters of their domains–historical figures worth looking further into:

  • Cy Tolliver, aging Lothario and pimp, Machiavellian player with human lives, verbal ninja who is used to having his way. He nonetheless bestows occasional mercies and evinces a sympathetic spirit. In the start of Season 3, he has begun to resort–as have many sophists–to the holy scriptures. But angelic whore Joanie Stubbs touches him to the quick, saying she thinks he sounds like “the devil.” He is also afflicted, as are most of the characters, with some medical condition. Cy’s is unclear, but it may be VD, since he keeps a bordello.
  • George Hearst, the father of William Randolph and a total capitalist engine, a man who is reputed to be able to “listen to the earth” as he searches its mineral wealth with monomaniacal focus. A funny scene shortly after he arrives and has purchased the central hotel has him tearing out a hole to make a veranda on the second floor, overlooking the main thoroughfare. So far, he shows zero humanity and cannot directly speak what feeds his dream; instead he says merely that he “seeks the color.” 
  • Sheriff Bullock is a man with whom the modern American male would wish to identify for his physical prowess, attractiveness to women, and enviable way with words. Although his extra-marital affair morally compromises him, his killing of Indians convicts him, and his wrath moves him to mercilessly beat the town’s mayor, Bullock’s character is nonetheless psychologically and morally respectable. His gentlemanly regard for the women of the camp and his conscientious sense of duty allow others–like his schoolmarm wife–to establish order in the otherwise chaotic camp. A hedge against chaos, he is himself a bit of a paradox, and thus highly realistic to the audience. 

As for Deadwood‘s ethos or message, the show has shown me so far that it will be something rather hopeful, like “in the end, all will be redeemed, all sins understood by the thoughtful human, if not forgiven.” The hopeless addict, the cold-blooded killers, and the crippled servants all have something worthy in them. There is a spirit of magnanimity in the camp. But we shall see. The show has sudden surprises and a more cynical view is also often expressed.

For instance, it makes a strong case for the banality of evil,  the way that the camp steps aside, or cranes its neck for a better look at, or is otherwise only slightly impressed by, the steady stream of homicide, racist cruelty, and other abuses.

One final observation about Deadwood: this show is catnip for English teachers: It shows that clean, articulate dialog in formal, Victorian English kicks a–.  The grandiloquent mayor, E.B. Farnam, practices his tropes and gambits before he meets the widow Alma, who wants to buy his enterprise in this sample:

E.B. Farnum: [Pacing, practicing his reply to Mrs. Garrett’s offer of purchasing his hotel] Madam, in the chambers of my heart beats a love for every crooked timber of this shitbox of a structure, this building. This building, its warped floorboards and…
Richardson: [drops dishes in the background] Fie!
E.B. Farnum: Why, even in Richardson, my chef, my eyes see a beloved household pet somehow walking upright – see in Richardson a half-witted child, a nonetheless adored character.

And when the thoroughly Machiavellian boss Al Swearengen speaks, it is as often of wisdom as  of abuse for his underlings and the mass of humanity, which he seems to hold in contempt. At one point, he gives good council to the “discouraged” journalist whose shop has been raided and shat in:

Al Swearengen: Pain or damage don’t end the world. Or despair or fucking beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man… and give some back.

Powerful stuff, this Deadwood dialog. And because of its compelling characters and realistic situations, powerful, and successful narrative!
 images from

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