Frank Rich: Thank Goodness for "Deadwood," the TV Show Brave Enough to Tell History Like It Was

Roundup: Talking About History

Frank Rich, in the NYT (3-13-05):

... If you can see only one of the shows that he [Sen. Ted Stevens (Alaska)] wants to banish or launder, let me recommend the series that probably has more four-letter words, with or without participles, than any in TV history. That would be "Deadwood" on HBO. Its linguistic gait befits its chapter of American history, the story of a gold-rush mining camp in the Dakota Territory of the late 1870's. "Deadwood" is the back story of a joke like "The Aristocrats" and of everything else that is joyously vulgar in American culture and that our new Puritans want to stamp out. It's the ur-text of Vegas and hip-hop and pulp fiction. It captures with Boschian relish what freedom, by turns cruel and comic and exhilarating, looked and sounded like at full throttle in frontier America before anyone got around to building churches or a government.

Its creator is David Milch, a former Yale fraternity brother of George W. Bush and the onetime protégé of Robert Penn Warren, whose 1946 novel "All the King's Men" upends bowdlerized fairy tales about American politics just as "Deadwood" dismantles Hollywood's old sanitized Westerns. As Mr. Milch says in an interview on the DVD of the first "Deadwood" season: "It's very well documented that the obscenity of the West was striking, and that the obscenity of mining camps was unbelievable." There was "a tremendous energy to the language," he adds, but the reason this language never surfaced in movie Westerns during the genre's heyday was the Hays production code. For some 30 years starting in 1934, Hollywood's self-censorship strictures kept even married couples in separate beds on screen.

Mr. Milch has fought such codes in the past. He was a co-creator, with Steven Bochco, of the network police show, "NYPD Blue," which prompted protests in 1993 for its rude language and exposure of David Caruso's backside. That battle was won; "NYPD Blue" overcame the howls of the American Family Association and an early blackout by some ABC affiliates to become a huge hit that ended its run only this month. But it's a measure of what has happened since that now even the backside of a cartoon toddler is being pixilated in the animated series "Family Guy," on Fox. Mr. Bochco told Variety, "I don't think today we could launch or sell 'NYPD Blue' in the form that it launched 12 years ago." He's right. We're turning the clock back to the days of Hays.

This is why "Deadwood" could not be better timed. It reminds us of who we are and where we came from, and that even indecency is part of an American's birthright. It also, if inadvertently, illuminates the most insidious underpinnings of today's decency police by further reminding us that the same people who want to stamp out entertainment like "Deadwood" also want to rewrite American history (and, when they can, the news) according to their dictates of moral and political correctness. They won't tolerate an honest account of the real Deadwood in a classroom or museum any more than they will its fictionalized representation on HBO.

Lynne Cheney has taken to writing and promoting triumphalist children's history books that, as she said on Fox News recently, offer "an uncynical approach to our nation and to our national story." (So much for her own out-of-print "Deadwood"-esque novel of 1981, "Sisters," with its evocation of lesbian passions on the frontier.) That's her right. But when her taste is enforced as government policy that's another matter. The vice president's wife has used her current political clout, as The Los Angeles Times uncovered last fall, to quietly squelch a Department of Education history curriculum pamphlet for parents that didn't fit her political agenda. It's no coincidence that Senator Stevens attacked the Smithsonian Institution in the 1990's when it mounted an exhibit deromanticizing the old West, "Deadwood"-style, by calling attention to the indignities visited on women, Indians and the environment....

Even as we're constantly told we're in a war for "freedom" abroad, freedom in our culture at home has been under attack ever since.

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