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'Deadwood': Still Shooting From the Hip

HBO's Western Returns In True Gritty Form

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 5, 2005; Page C01

Wests don't get much wilder than David Milch's, as the return of his "Deadwood" to an otherwise rather barren HBO schedule makes invigoratingly clear. As much as any other Western town in any other Western, Deadwood -- which is really a camp hoping to be a town hoping to be part of the United States -- seems really to exist, so vivid are the characters and so rich the texture.

Maybe that should be "so filthy rich the texture," because the series and the town are decorated with dirt all the time. The show isn't in color, it's in colors -- brown, gray and black. "Deadwood" is magnificently gritty in appearance and poetically obscene in language. No one ever says something as simple as "I'm hungry" without a notorious gerund between the first word and the third. But you get used to it, and it actually becomes kind of lyrical.

Michael Ealy and Halle Berry make things interesting in Oprah Winfrey's presentation of "Their Eyes Were Watching God" on Channel 7 at 9. (Vivian Zink -- Abc)

Returning for a second 12-episode season on HBO tomorrow night at 9, it is virtually certain to be hurt in the ratings by ABC's "Desperate Housewives," though that powerhouse series has the night off this week. What's more, "Deadwood" has lost a valued presence or two since its last premiere -- most conspicuously Wild Bill Hickok. But if some characters are gone, the show's own character remains intact. It is defiantly and noisily unlike anything else on television, a Western even for people who avoid Westerns.

The town seems to have grown, its one street getting a little longer and a little deeper -- deeper in terms of mud if not social significance. Telegraph poles are rising ominously from the grass and trailing into the distance. Progress rears its ugly head.

Unfortunately, Milch may go into too much detail about that. The third and fourth episodes (four were provided for preview by HBO) degenerate into complicated tales of commerce, and the stunning tension of the show, the feeling that rage will explode at any moment, dissipates. But even in Deadwood and in "Deadwood," there have to be lulls once in a while. Otherwise we would all be exhausted.

The two main adversaries, a good man and an evil one who are slowly becoming a little more like each other, continue to dominate. This is especially true of Ian McShane in a performance that shrieks "Emmy" (or "Emmy" with a profane adjective in front of it) as Al Swearengen, the monument to corruption who owns the town's big bed-and-breakfast, only it's a bar-and-brothel, and business continues to boom.

He must have been named "Swearengen" by Milch because he is the swearingest man who ever toted a bottle, heh heh heh.

As the series reopens, in the spring of 1877, poor old Al is in terrible straits, looking as though he has syphilis but apparently afflicted with a kidney stone the size of Wyoming. The primitive techniques applied by the world-weary Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) may be more painful than the ailment, especially a long metal rod that is heated up and -- ugh! We'll spare you. As the treatment continues, Swearengen's agonized screams can be heard all over town, even in the bedroom of his polar opposite, the decent and honorable Seth Bullock, who is now the sheriff and is still played as the handsomest but most solemn of heroes by Timothy Olyphant.

These two adversaries are as fascinating and formidable in their ways as Captain Ahab and Moby Dick. But Bullock's virtue has its limits (as whose doesn't?), and the arrival of his wife and young son from the East, on a coach chock-full o' whores, makes that discomforting reality almost as troubling to Bullock as Swearengen's malady is to him -- just painful in a different place.

Robin Weigert's Calamity Jane is another of the show's historical characters who get a wickedly revisionist interpretation -- revisionist in terms of previous Westerns but perhaps more faithful to fact than to fable. Weigert is a disarming enigma -- sometimes literally disarming -- although in the first episode, if my notes don't deceive me, she has only one brief appearance and not so much a line of dialogue as a loud, mournful groan. She's sleeping on her horse along the trail but wakes up long enough to greet the day with one ungodly sound.

There are so many good actors having such good times that even at its most stubbornly twisted (for $5, we learn, you can have a dead body fed to the local pigs), there is something madly jubilant and robust in Milch's vision. Coming down along the trail in the weeks ahead, among others, is ace character actor Stephen Tobolowsky as Hugo Jarry, a county official who appears to harbor news of prosperity ahead. But this is a town filled with people who could cure themselves of prosperity in short order. Many of them could simply drink it away.

Cy Tolliver, played underwhelmingly by Powers Boothe, has opened up a competing house of prostitution with its own bevy of tattered beauties, and subplots pile upon subplots in such profusion that it's sometimes hard to follow who's trying to do what to whom.

The plotting can even be sloppy. Bullock and Swearengen have one helluva fight in the first episode that sends them through the window of Swearengen's office, out onto and then off the outdoor balcony, crashing to the street below. During the fight, Bullock takes a viciously sneaky whack to the head from the butt of Dan Dority's rifle (Dority, played with elegant nastiness by W. Earl Brown, is one of Swearengen's flunkies). Bullock is knocked unconscious but later vows to settle the score with the varmint who clocked him. Except as of the fourth episode, that still seems to have slipped his mind.

Swearengen is in such poor health, one wonders how many more episodes he'll survive. But although Hickok is moderately missed, the loss of Swearengen would probably be fatal to the series. He is part of its beating heart, forceful and resourceful, rotten but not to the core. When you see his ghastly, tortured face, you know that "Deadwood" is back in all its beautifully ugly glory.

'Their Eyes Were Watching God'

"Oprah Winfrey Presents" will surely never be applied to a movie that is sleazy or cheap or unnecessarily violent. Winfrey does try to offer TV entertainment of value and with values. But her latest ABC movie, "Their Eyes Were Watching God," is almost comically predictable as an Oprah item -- a supposedly inspiring saga of a young woman who is strong and independent and proud of her womanhood and, of course, the victim of a number of weak or sneaky men.

The heroine would practically defy interest except that she is played by Halle Berry, so flawlessly gorgeous even when attired in rags that the director can hardly keep the lens on anything else. It explores as much of Berry as commercial-TV mores will allow. In that sense, the film is Berry Berry watchable.

But Janie Crawford, the character Berry plays in the 2 1/2-hour film -- airing tomorrow night at 9 -- is something of a ninny, her ambitions in life changing from one moment, and one husband, to the next. She marries three times, once for money and power, once for sex and once for whatever; she seems happiest when confiding in or romping with her female friends.

This is probably the only movie Berry has made in which she gets to tell someone, "Put my pig down." She has decided to liberate the piggies on her husband's small farm, though this makes little sense. Nor does the fact that she leaps from the age of 17 to 38 without any noticeable change in appearance and with little warning from the script, which is based on the novel by Zora Neale Hurston.

The first husband (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) is the cigar-puffing mayor of Eatonville, which, we are told by a sign in one of the first scenes, was "the first integrated colored town in America." Now the story of how Eatonville came to be might have made a fascinating film. But Eatonville, where the primary concern is playing checkers, is only the background for Berry and her love affairs. In prefatory girlhood scenes, we get glimpses of the legendary Ruby Dee as Janie's granny, but she's gone in a flash.

When the bossy mayor drops dead, Janie remains as the first lady of Eatonville. But then one day she is cleaning the family store and, uh-oh, a sweaty, hairy chest appears in the doorway. It belongs to Michael Ealy, a promising young actor from Silver Spring. He and Berry have a number of sexy scenes together, but you're left wondering what it is Janie wants from life, whether she knows and, most of all, why on Earth we should care.

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