Friday, June 18, 2004

TV: Deadwood

The freshman season of HBO’s western came to a close with one of the finest hours of television I’ve ever seen. And the show pulled numbers that makes the network think it’s found a successor to THE SOPRANOS.

Never has a TV series done such a remarkable job of recreating the period. Not only in terms of production design, but also the faces of its actors. Even the smallest roles are impeccably cast. Some shots look like animated tintypes. The show’s dialogue is equally fine. Dense, earthy, frequently hilarious.

Ian McShane has garnered the lion’s share of the praise, and deservedly so; his Al Swearengen is a villain for the ages. But Timothy Olyphant has been a revelation. He’s been appealing but not particularly memorable in films like GO and SCREAM 2, and in the early episodes of DEADWOOD he came across as callow. But by season’s end he’d gained a gravity unparalleled in actors of his age; watching the finale, you saw a star being born before your eyes. And Brad Dourif as Doc Cochran is the heart of the show. It’s great to see him in a role worthy of his talents at this stage of his career.

Much as I hate to give credit to advertising, the network’s oft-mocked slogan (“It’s not TV, it’s HBO”) is true. If you don’t have HBO, you’re missing one of the driving forces of popular culture. It’s taken on the role Miramax held 15 years ago. Not everything it touches turns to gold; K STREET and CARNIVALE were misfires, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM went downhill fast, and I’ve never warmed to SIX FEET UNDER. But even those shows are daring in a way nothing else on the entertainment landscape is.

Part of the reason for the success of its series is the willingness of their creators to allow others to play in the sandbox. Each show is the product of a single artistic vision, buttressed by a stable core of writers and directors. But SEX AND THE CITY also made room for talented women who came out of indie film (Allison Anders, Nicole Holofcener, Alison Maclean). THE SOPRANOS has been directed by top-tier talent like Mike Figgis and Lee Tamahori. Crime novelist George Pelecanos has written several episodes of my favorite HBO series, THE WIRE, and according to reports will be joined this season by Dennis Lehane. Having Madonna guest star on WILL & GRACE doesn’t quite pack the same punch.

Commercial: Diet Coke

Kate Beckinsale is only called upon to look lovely in this ad, which she’s able to do with ease. A few years ago this would have been seen as a bad career move for an actor on the rise, but the stigma attached to appearing in commercials is fading. And the pay’s better than in live theater. Soon big stars won’t have to go overseas to do these gigs, as in LOST IN TRANSLATION. Oddly enough, that film’s writer/director Sofia Coppola is currently appearing in a commercial for wine-in-a-can that’s airing in Europe. I hope that while filming it she whispered sage advice to an older man at a loose end. At least the product she’s pitching is named after her.

Miscellaneous: Survey Says

My years of complaining that I’ve never participated in a poll are over. I was finally chosen to answer a series of questions about the vital political issues of the day.

One of them struck me as odd: If there were another war next year, which President would you most want to have leading the country? The choices were Abe Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, LBJ, Bush I or Bush II. As James K. Polk was not an option, I went with Truman.

Then I read in the paper that scientists have figured out how to teleport atoms. Future wars, past presidents, and now teleportation. Is something going on that I don’t know about?

Miscellaneous: Links

Slate explains where bestsellers come from. And a Chinese beauty queen fights the lonely battle for self-improvement through plastic surgery.