The Man Who Made Deadwood

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David Milch has taken one of the most convoluted imaginable paths to success in television. Having earned an M.F.A. in fiction at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, he went on to teach literature at Yale for nine years and became close friends with a man he now regards as one of his mentors, the great novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren. From 1982 to 1987 he wrote for “Hill Street Blues,” proving that if television scripts were not actually literature, they could, at the least, be first-rate drama. With “NYPD Blue” (1993–2005) he took the urban crime drama to new levels of complexity and intensity.

“Deadwood,” the series he created, begins its third season in June. The supercharged dramatization of actual events in the legendary South Dakota gold-mining town has done for the American West what “The Sopranos” has done for mob mythology, competing with that series for the unofficial title of the most scintillating hour on television. While preparing for the season premiere, Milch took some time off to assess the impact of “Deadwood” on our perceptions and misperceptions of frontier America.

When “Deadwood” first came on, a lot of people were scrambling to find its inspirations. Some said Sam Peckinpah, a few said the Westerns of Walter Hill, but nothing really stuck. It took me about midway through the second season to understand that the show’s antecedents weren’t really Westerns, or am I wrong?

No, you’re quite right. I did want to do a show on the American West, but I didn’t want to do a Western. I’ve never really understood or cared for the con-ventions of the Western. I always thought they had more to do with what the Hays Office would allow than with what happened on the American frontier. The more I came to read about the West, the more I realized how little what we called Westerns had to do with the West and how much they had to do with the vision of European Jews in the movie business who made a fortune selling a sanitized idea of American history back to America. The Hays Code said right up front that obscenity in word or action was an offense against God and man and could therefore not be depicted on a movie screen.

I’d say you obliterated the stated ideals of the Hays Code in the first 10 minutes of the first episode of “Deadwood.”

Yeah, both barrels.

Would it be fair to say that your intention was to do a revisionist Western?

No, not really. At least that’s not how I started out. At the beginning I wasn’t really reacting against anything. What I was really interested in was the development of law and order, or, specifically, how does order develop without law. In new societies, in frontier societies where there is no central authority, how does order develop? It isn’t just a matter of brute force; even brute force can only be used by somebody with an idea of order. How does chaos evolve into order?

I’m sorry, I don’t mean to laugh, but as you said that, a scene just popped into my head. In Blazing Saddles, in the courthouse scene that parodies the one in High Noon, somebody bangs a gavel and hollers, “Order!” Another character says—

Yes, yes. “Y’know, Nietzsche says: Out of chaos comes order.” A great moment. What does it tell you about the strict conventions of Westerns that the only time that question has been raised is in a Mel Brooks movie?

Where did you want to set the show if not in the West?

Well, this is going to sound kind of strange, but my initial feeling was that I’d set it in ancient Rome, the time of the emperor Nero.

The “Seven Hills Street Blues”?

That’s the worst pun I’ve ever heard. Thank you. I may use that. I wanted to follow a group of Roman policemen, more or less the city cops, who are called the Urban Cohorts. The Romans had a Praetorian Guard, but its function was to watch over the emperor and do his bidding. They were all involved in court intrigue, and it was left for the Urban Cohorts to more or less keep things together in the absence of genuine moral authority.

“The Urban Cohorts”—a great name for a punk band. Also a great idea for a TV series. Why didn’t it happen?

 

My initial feeling was that I’d set it in ancient Rome.

Well, the Rome mini-series was under way, so I was behind the historical curve on that idea. Some people at HBO were in-terested in the themes I talked about. What they wanted to know was: Could you deal with the same themes in a different historical setting? I then thought about placing it in the American West, but it had to be in an exact time and place in which there was near chaos, a nascent community struggling for some kind of authority. Deadwood, I realized after extensive research, was what I had been looking for. It was, after all, a completely illegal city, a town that existed without legal authority and which went through a maelstrom of turmoil before its citizens learned to impose some kind of order on themselves.

As I said, it wasn’t my intention to make a revisionist Western, but I became increasingly interested in creating a vision of the West as I saw it, as I believe it existed and which has seldom been presented before.

Why do you think your visions shocked so many people?