I think that it has become clear that the golden age of television drama – we might even say its classical age – was finite. It extended from season one of The Sopranos through to season seven of Mad Men. There is increasingly a deadening slickness about the output, from the cod-Gothic, neo-noir soap opera of Bloodline to the sphincter-loosening sumptuousness of The Crown, and there has been a tonal move towards the middle ground and towards safeness. Deadwood, which ran for three seasons until 2006, now looks a little jerry-built, a little shonky around the edges, but in the imaginative reach of its language and the ambition of its vaulting narratives, it seems, in contrast to contemporary shows, positively Shakespearean.
I bring the Swan of Avon into this advisedly: much has been made of the largely Elizabethan register that Deadwood’s show-runner and lead writer, David Milch, used for the language of the series. It is utterly inauthentic to the show’s setting – the eponymous gold rush town in South Dakota in the 1870s – but its layered cadences, its jivey poetics and its mad lurches between the sacred and the (very) profane seemed to give to Deadwood a sense of deep, almost uncanny emotional truth.
It helped greatly to have magnificent, scene-chewing performances from the likes of Ian McShane, as the saloon and brothel-keeper Al Swearengen, a hard Machiavel with a mouth on him like a glorious sewer, and Paula Malcomson, as the magnificently dead-eyed prostitute Trixie. But more than anything else, Deadwood was carried by the megalomaniacal force of Milch’s verbal energy; he may be the greatest dialogist alive and his brand of inky, night-black comedy is savagely appropriate to our era.
Deadwood is about uncomfortable things: the birth and death of capitalism, the queasy insistences of greed and ambition and the orgiastic sex charge of ultra-violence. Unlike most contemporary film and television productions, it is not afraid of words. There are mad swaths of dialogue, just reams upon reams of the crazy stuff, and it’s almost all wonderful, so funny and tragic, so sad and true.
Deadwood would not be made today. The executives wouldn’t even read the scripts – they would just see all that writing and run a mile. It may be the last great TV show to run on the engines of purely literary technique. It may be one of the last great expressions of televisual eloquence.