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'Deadwood' Stands Tall in Peabody Awards

By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page C07

The University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication ignored the television "indecency" drumbeat in Washington and bestowed one of its coveted Peabody Awards on HBO's critically acclaimed, wildly profane drama "Deadwood."

"The HBO series twists the conventions of the Western into an excruciating knot of history and imagined events," the Peabody Awards board said in yesterday's announcement. "The Deadwood mining camp is peopled with the profane and violent men -- and women -- who occupy the fragile frontier between civilization and savagery."

Ian McShane plays Al Swearengen, the central figure in the profane HBO drama "Deadwood." (Prashant Gupta)

The Peabody Awards do not have categories; the board doles them out to programs it thinks best represent radio and television that calendar year. This year's TV winners range from the report by CBS's "60 Minutes II" on Abu Ghraib prison, to Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" coverage of the presidential election, to WGBH's "American Experience" documentary about Tupperware.

The "Deadwood" win, however, was the most likely to raise eyebrows.

The show is a claustrophobic, sepia-toned western set in an 1870s mining town that arose on land belonging to Native Americans and therefore not subject to U.S. laws, show creator David Milch has said. "They were an outlaw community and they knew it," he said in an interview on HBO's "Deadwood" Web site. The central character is local whorehouse owner Al Swearengen (played by Ian McShane).

Swearengen is prone to delivering soliloquies while getting a Lewinsky from one of his employees. In Deadwood, it costs five bucks to have a human body fed to the town pigs. And even critics who love the show acknowledge the language is so rough it makes "The Sopranos" look like "Sesame Street." One fan, the Kansas City Star's Aaron Barnhart, complained in his review of the second-season debut last month that the "unrelenting profanity" can be "wearing, even exhausting," though creator Milch and his writers "obviously enjoy piling it on."

"I wish they wouldn't. It's inconsiderate. After all, Sen. Stevens might be watching" Barnhart quipped.

The reference is to Ted Stevens, the Republican senator from Alaska who chairs the Commerce Committee and who has suggested the Federal Communications Commission's indecency and profanity rules for broadcast TV stations should be expanded to cable and satellite television providers.

Stevens is only one voice in the cacophony. This week new FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told cable operators at a convention in San Francisco that the cable industry should voluntarily police its content, before Congress or the agency does it for them. At the same cable confab, House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) suggested helpfully that those who disregard the rules should have criminal charges brought against them.

The "60 Minutes II" win went to Dan Rather's report on the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, in which we got to see for the first time those shocking snaps of U.S. soldiers and abused Iraqi prisoners. Mary Mapes, who was sacked over the discredited "60 Minutes" report on President Bush's National Guard service, was a producer of the Abu Ghraib report.

"The Daily Show" won for its "Indecision 2004" coverage of the presidential campaigns, in which, the board noted, "Jon Stewart and cohorts provided the kind of cathartic satire that deflates pomposity on an equal opportunity basis. Somehow this sharp commentary made the real issues more important than ever."

The board called "American Experience: Tupperware!" a "vibrant documentary" that "considers why a plastic food container has become not only a ubiquitous product, but a cultural icon" causing viewers to "re-examine their assumptions about American culture in the 1950s."

ABC has picked up its most watched reality series for next season.

No surprise there: "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" is averaging about 16 million viewers -- up 5 million compared with last season. That makes it the fastest-growing reality series on any broadcast network, ABC noted.

The home-renovation series is up more than 50 percent among the 18- to 49-year-olds advertisers crave. It's also Sunday's No. 1 show with kids.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company