Tuesday, April 29, 2008

36. Deadwood

In their music Led Zeppelin has sung a lot of world-wide, common sense truisms, such as: “If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now. It's just a sprinkle for the May queen.” I can't tell you how many times a day this piece of advice saves me from being alarmed. But this quote, “It's been a long time since I rock and rolled”, best fits in with the tardiness (as in late, not retarded – though you have to read this entry to weigh in on that) of my posts of late. Life, kids. Life sometimes gets in the way of writing.

Let's shrug off the day-to-day weight of life and get down to why we're here, to slog upwards to the top of the mountain of television greatness. Please don't forget that I am your Sherpa guide and in this entry, we're going to make a base camp at the summit of the HBO western, “Deadwood”.

Traditional Westerns have never done it for me; I didn't like “Bonanza” or “Wagon Train” or anything starring John Wayne. The whole genre seemed a little too hokey for me; the bad guys are always wearing black hats and the good guys in white always riding to the rescue of a town. The only payment for the good guys is the faint whiff of sweet lady justice—and the ability to put holes in people without getting tossed in the clink. And the rest of the characters were equally cartoony: the damsel in distress, the grizzled prospector, the pussy-assed “law man”, the savage Indian.

All of these people had flimsy excuses for living and had even lamer reasons for doing what they did. Why is the good guy good? Why is the mayor so lilly-livered? There was never any backstory or any shades of grey in westerns; good was good, bad was bad. That's just the way it was back then.

But was it really? Of course not. The west was the last bastion of no-man's land on this planet. Men who needed a new beginning or a change from the East or who were interested in making their fortunes fled to west because everything was up for grabs out there. Like to have sex with prostitutes for 50 cents? Come out to the west. Like to drink your weight in booze? Come out to the west. Like to kill Indians or want to be the boss of a boom town? Come out to the west. Don't want to work in a factory where your arms could get ripped off? Come out to the west.

These are some of the themes that “Deadwood” delved into. This show wasn't set up like the traditional westerns of the past, and that's what was so great about it. The one thing that traditional westerns glazed over was that there wasn't any “civilized” rules in the wild west and people acted upon it. Sex, drugs, drinking, swearing, killing—these kinds of things happened every day in “Deadwood” and it probably happened every day in “Bonanza”, yet the viewers weren't allowed to see it, or hear about it. Because of this puritanical attitude that was prevalent during the majority of last century,“Deadwood” is probably the best mirror to what the real post Civil War west was like.

I know that societal mores were different when the western was the popular form of entertainment, but how could an audience not question the actions of the men portrayed in a truly free society? “Deadwood” shows the type of lawlessness that happens when man is not governed by some set of rules.

There are a ton of characters in “Deadwood”; some real, some fictional. Calamity Jane is a lesbian drunk (which makes sense if you think about it), Wild Bill Hickok starred in a few episodes before he was shot in the back; but the two characters most focused upon are Sheriff Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen. Bullock comes to Deadwood, South Dakota with his partner Sol Star to open a hardware store because he is sick of being a lawman in his home town. Swearengen is the muscle that runs the local brothel and the rest of the town (unofficially, of course).

The two square off in the first season, realize an uneasy truce in the second season—when Swearengen has to mobilize to fend off Cy Tolliver, the proprietor of even shady business dealings and a new whore house that has been cutting in on Swearengen's business. Tolliver is small potatoes compared to the menace that shows up midway through the second season: George Hearst. As Hearst makes himself home and begins to summon his men to claim this town for his own—strictly for the gold in them thar hills—Swearengen and Bullock both agree that this isn't good for them and indirectly the people of Deadwood and mobilize a counter attack.

Those two paragraphs do nothing for the intricacies of each episode as there are often four to five plot lines running concurrently that may effect each season's story arc. I believe that what creator David Milch wanted to show is that like today, the west wasn't cut and dry. These were not people who had one moral compass; even the “good guys” do things for their own selfish reasons and that doesn't make them bad. And for the most part, the bad guys (even Hearst) aren't completely and totally bad.

Hearst is set up to be the villain purely because he arrived at Deadwood a few years too late. If he had taken the initiative and Swearengen had been lax in getting to South Dakota, the roles would be reversed. Like many HBO programs (“The Sopranos”, “Rome”, “Big Love” and even “Entourage”) everything comes down to power and how you protect it. Swearengen and Bullock don't want to give up their power and will do everything they can to keep it. That means that the sheriff may have to get dirty with the pigs in some cases.

Also, it is my belief that Milch sets Hearst up as the personification of progress and change; bringing the east out west. His character was like many of the factory owners, oil or land barons of that time where they were made rich off the sweat of the working man. They were unsympathetic towards the plight of their workers and treated men like raw material. Hearst does the same thing, only in the wild west there are people to try and stop them. Ultimately, Swearengen and Bullock will learn that they can't stop progress. If Hearst is halted, then there will be another and another and another until the “civilized” world is brought to South Dakota and their lawless paradise is destroyed.

There are also themes running through the three seasons: how women were treated (poorly, but with some respect), how black people were seen following the Civil War (a lot of the western settlers were soldiers from both sides of the conflict and thus their interactions are tempered by that), how the Chinese were treated (very poorly, almost subhuman—though Swearengen was intelligent enough to strike a bond with the Chinese ghetto's leader Wu). Even issues with children, Jews, the handicapped (played by former “Facts of Life” star Geri Jewell—another terrific character is played by follow 80s sitcom alum, William Sanderson as dim witted, puppet “mayor” and hotel owner E.B. Farnum. Sanderson played Larry—not Daryl or his other brother Daryl—on “Newhart”.) and other immigrants are brought to light in this series.

There are two hurdles to jump regarding this show: the cadence and quickness of each speaker is tough to pick up during the first episode. You begin to grow an ear for deciphering what each character says, understanding Deadwood is almost like understanding a different language. The other hurdle—and this is a big one—is that show never was given a proper send off. Once the third season concluded, it was thought that despite low ratings, “Deadwood” was going to get either a full or half-season to tie up loose ends. Then it was decided that Milch was going to work on his new series, “John From Cincinnati” (which was terrible) and wrap up “Deadwood” with two movies. That never materialized either.

So unless something happens soon, we are left to wonder what happened to the all too human inhabitants mining camp that tried their damnedest to stop civilization.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

2008 Boston Red Sox Pitcher's Preview

In honor of the Red Sox opening up Fenway Park for the 2009 season ... uhm, it hasn't been that long has it? Sorry about that folks, real life has been absolutely crazy the past few weeks which is why the TV countdown and the baseball previews have been stagnant.

So without more talky-talky, let's get to the reason why you guys are here; half-baked attempts at prognostication!

Daisuke Matsuzaka 15-12 4.40 – Better. For as much crap as Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett get for being hard-headed and unresponsive to suggestions from pitching coaches, Matsuzaka may be more so. All last year manager Terry Francona and pitching coach John Farrell have been begging Matsuzaka to throw his change up more often and for some reason he wouldn't. That's why he had decent, but not spectacular numbers. Do I think that he'll change his approach this year and listen to what Francona and Farrell have to say? I certainly hope so because he has the stuff to be a staff ace, I just hope he has the head too.

Tim Wakefield 17-12 4.76 – Worse. Wakefield pitched very well last year and at times he looked like Tim Wakefield circa 1995. I don't think that it will happen again this year and the main reason is that injuries are starting to nip at the knuckler's heels. He was scratched from a World Series start and opened the year on the DL. He didn't pitch very well in Toronto, though with the knuckleball things can be different from start-to-start. My gut tells me that Wakefield had his last good year in 2007 and that 2008 may be his last year period. I don't think that going from Doug Mirabelli to Kevin Cash is going to hurt him at all.

Josh Beckett 20-7 3.27 – Same. This guy was an absolute monster in the post season in 2007 and without him, Boston would've lost to the Cleveland Indians in five games. The reason why he outpitched Indians' ace CC Sabathia wasn't because he had better stuff, it's because he threw 40 innings less than the large lefty. Boston was wise to keep him off the Japan roadtrip and while it may look like he got rocked by the Blue Jays on Sunday, he really didn't pitch that badly. I expect a better performance for his next start and that will catapult him for the rest of the season.

Jon Lester 4-0 4.57 – Better. I've never really been sold on Jon Lester as a lights-out prospect. I thought that he could be a decent mid-rotation starter, not someone that you don't include in a trade for Johan Santana. Over the last two seasons, he's impressed me at times—the guy came back from cancer in less than a year and won game four of the World Series, how can you not be blown away by that. But there have been times when he's been maddening—I'm not going to say that he's Pat Rapp or Frank Castillo, but quit f*&*%$ing nibbling out there and throw the ball. His first two starts were decent, let's see if he can keep it up.

Clay Buchholz 3-1 1.59 – Worse. He's not going to throw a no-hitter every other start, and truthfully if Schilling didn't get hurt, he'd be in Pawtucket. But the kid does have electric stuff and could be the best home-grown pitcher the Sox have produced since William Roger Clemens. This kid could be a top-of-the-rotation guy, but it won't be this year. Expect to see him struggle, expect to hear people ask “What's wrong with him?”, expect to see him dominate next year.

Curt Schilling 9-8 3.87 – Worse. Like him or hate him, he's been everything the Sox asked for since they acquired him during the dark winter of 2003. He's not going to throw a meaningful inning until July—if at all—so anything you get from him is going to be gravy. Because of his pride and respect for the sport itself, I have a feeling that Schilling will pitch again in 2008, even if it's just to get the standing ovation that he richly deserves. A borderline Hall of Famer coming into the 2007 season, I think that his candidacy was cemented last October.

Bartolo Colon 6-8 6.34 (with LA Angels) – Better? One day you hear that he's topping out in Pawtucket at 96 mph, the next day he goes on the seven-day minor league disabled list. He looks like Lard Lad, but apparently his arm is ok. I have no idea what to make of this guy. If I was a betting man, I would say that he'd make a few good starts in Boston, get the fandom completely pumped up and then go on the DL with some sort of ailment. Basically he's the fatter version of Brett Saberhagen, David Cone, Ramon Martinez or any other pitcher that used to be really good and then came to Boston on the backside of their career.

Jonathan Papelbon 37 saves 1.85 – Worse, but not much. The only reason why I say he's going to do worse is because of that ERA. Look at it. That's amazing. Can he do that for two straight seasons? It's a tall order, but if anyone on this staff can do it, it'll be him. The one thing that I'm worried about is if success has gone to his head. Going on David Letterman, offers for “Dancing With the Stars”, hanging out with the Dropkick Murphys—you saw what happened to Ricky Vaughn. I wish more people would realize that “Major League” was a cautionary tale and NOT a comedy.

Hideki Okajima 3-2 2.22 – Worse. Like Papelbon, how can Okajima be much better? For the first four months of the season, the guy was lights out. Then he got very tired, was rested and came back strong for the postseason. Say what you want about Mike Lowell, David Ortiz and Beckett, but Okajima was the MVP of the season. But he's not going to get a lot of pub for that, and that's ok because he likes being the “Assassin in the Dark”, which is a nickname that the inner comic book geek in me loves. That being said, he'll have another solid year but it won't be as great as 2007.

Mike Timlin 2-1 3.42 – Worse. This has to be it for Timlin, right? He's coming up on his 20th season and that's a bit old for a middle reliever. I think that the 2007 stats belie his effectiveness though as Timlin had a decent year, but he wasn't as good as his numbers say. I'd expect a few more trips to the DL and some worse numbers, but like always, he'll be effective.

Manny Delcarmen 0-0 2.5 – Better. A lot of responsibility is being dumped on Delcarmen's shoulders this year as the front office wants him to be the new Mike Timlin—ie the guy who gets to either Okajima or Papelbon. And with the first few games already in the books, that little experiment isn't turning out the way that the front office intended. Hopefully it's just the jet lag and not the winter spent being the toast of Jamaica Plain.

Javier Lopez 2-1 3.10 – Same. Lopez is a strange cat, he's a LOOGY who can't get left-handed hitters out, but is nasty on righties. Do you waste a roster spot on him hoping that he gets his act together and use him against right-handed hitters? Or do you send him away and pray that you can find someone that can get lefties out? I think that Francona is the type of manager who likes what he has and stays with it, instead of beating the bushes to see if he can get someone better.

Bryan Corey 1-0 1.93 – Worse. He only pitched a handful of innings last year and so far this year, he's thrown just as well. However, he's not going to keep that sub 2.00 ERA. He's a good back of the bullpen type of guy. You can't worry much about your 10th or 11th guys on the pitching staff, otherwise you'd go crazy.
David Aardsma 2-1 6.40 (with Chicago White Sox) – Same. And here's your 11th pitcher. There are times when he throws extremely well and times when he's should be boarding the Lou Merloni shuttle to Pawtucket. The problem is he doesn't have options left and the Sox like him. They like him so much that they DFA'ed Kyle Snyder last week instead of Aardsma. I think that says something.