In 2004, HBO aired a series called Deadwood, a Western-style show by creator David Milch. Milch’s vision of Deadwood trafficked in all the traditional tropes of the Wild West, but applied contemporary sensibilities to its numerous subplots, making for a compelling narrative.
At the time, HBO was well on its way to transforming into a premium programming channel with the help of shows like The Sopranos, David Chase’s crime masterpiece about family, money, and trust. The Sopranos changed the way American audiences viewed television, leveraging long-form narratives in ways that echoed prior network shows like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue 1 yet reflected contemporary social dilemmas viewers could relate to.
As a result, The Sopranos won numerous Emmy and Peabody awards, combining razor-sharp writing with excellent casting and direction. Deadwood, gritty, dusty, followed in those same footsteps, redefining the Western and capturing award after award.
Then, after three seasons, it ended2.
Brian Boone, writing for Looper, offers a litany of reasons for Deadwood’s cancellation: expense, lower viewership numbers, corporate infighting, managerial chaos.
The unseen bruise, purple and malformed, is trust in the HBO brand. Premium narratives require conjunct faith: if you’re going to be dignified in your storytelling, if you’re going to maintain intricate plot structures and characterization (such as The Wire 3), viewers need assurances the show is going to breathe until its story is finished. After all, audiences are committing the time of their lives — the only real currency in the world — to these stories.
1 NYPD Blue was also created by David Milch and garnered much acclaim for its gritty portrayal of the life of New York City police officers, both professionally and privately.
2 Not terribly surprising, shows end all the time. The challenge with Deadwood stems from its then popularity, launching the careers of Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane. One could make numerous parallels with shows such as Arrested Development, a postmodernist comedy about a dysfunctional family in real estate, or even Firefly, a space Western about being on the wrong side of a war.
3 I’d argue that The Wire still remains the most elegantly crafted crime narrative on modern American television with a very close second going to Breaking Bad. It seems important to note that capitalism yields an unseemly hitchhiker called ‘brand’. Brand influence conflates truth with elements of fiction. Sadly, consumers are mostly untrained in filtering brand truthiness.