Rescue Me and Deadwood: The Boys of Summer

Season Finales End with Whimpers

By: - Aug 30, 2006

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    Traditionally summer TV is dominated by network reruns. Shows end in May and summer is for shooting the fall seasons which are revamped just after Labor Day. The assumption is that during the months of good weather folks have options other than sitting in front of the tube.  Even during regular seasons past there wasn't much serious original drama beyond PBS and Masterpiece Theatre. A couple of PBS reruns last week reminded me of just how much I miss Chief Inspector Morse. The late Morse was head and shoulders over all those network cop shows and CSI franchises.

    But first HBO and then FX have seriously changed the summer netscape. They continue to offer quality shows during the summer slump putting serious pressure on the networks. Two of the best series of this or any season just mounted their final episodes. After three years HBO has struck the set for "Deadwood" despite running to superb critical acclaim and a small but loyal fan base. Not enough for the producers to crunch the numbers. Which is not good news for viewers as HBO. The brilliant "Six Feet Under" has been buried and its flagship "The Sopranos" is due for a too brief curtain call. Fortunately the network will bring back  "Rome" which has struggled to live up to its potential. Too much history, perhaps, for viewers who prefer the mobsters from Joisey.

    In the past few seasons FX has mounted series that challenge the best of HBO and PBS. The series "Rescue Me" which Denis Leary co writes and stars in has had moments of absolute brilliance these past three seasons. But the season finale was too much of the same old "Who shot J.R." cliffhanger. The firefighter Tommy is caught, drugged by his scorned lover, in, of all things, a fire. Do we have to wait until next year to find out whether the star of "Rescue Me" is himself rescued? Come now Denis, surely you can do better than that.

    There is actually some wisdom in the networks not wanting to offer their best ammunition in the low ratings summer months. When we went off for vacation I missed  two episodes of "Rescue Me" and struggled to pick up the plot once again. There was no such issue with missing segments of "Deadwood" as they replayed through Comcast On Demand. Of course a lot of folks can Tivo those missing episodes but I miss that function despite paying some $95 a month to Comcast upgrading to get HBO. Remember back in the day when TV was free? Still is for some of my artist friends who stick to the rabbit ears or just subscribe to basic cable.

     For the past three seasons "Deadwood" has taken some getting used to. The characters were rough to say the least but also arguably true to life and full of historic detail. They were unable to complete a single sentence without the f word. Those who did not so indulge were clearly identified as the refined and civilized members of the hard scrabble frontier camp. The worst offender in this regard was Wu an Asian trying to eke out a living. He drew diagrams to get his messages across and his only words in English were x rated. It is to his pigs that the various murder victims were fed to get rid of incriminating corpses. By the end of the series they were remarkably well fed.

    The other impediment of "Deadwood" was its oddly Elizabethan sounding syntax. The characters seemed to be reciting lines from Shakespeare. When whacking and hacking at each other. The endless swearing and complex language structure may have been too much to gain a decent audience share. But it also conveyed that for loyal viewers there was the chance to experience drama that was absolutely compelling and unique. Several of the characters, particularly, Ian McShane as the scheming businessman and ruthless killer Al Schwerengen, were truly amazing. His was one of the finest performances on the small screen over the past three years. His evil was countered by the essential goodness of Timothy Oliphant's sheriff Bullock, who was locked into a tragic marriage to his brother's straight laced widow  (Anna Gunn), but pined for another widow, Mrs. Ellsworth, the rich and addicted character played by the wonderful Molly Parker. What to make of Robin Weigert's swaggering, gonzo drunk and fraidy cat gunslinger Calamity Jane? She was a character who took getting used to but steadily evolved in richness and complexity.

    There were literally dozens of characters to keep track of and  superb cameo performances like the whore with a heart of gold, Trixie (Paula Malcomson) who both sleeps with and has contempt for the meek "Jew" and Bullock's business partner, Sol Star (John Hawkes). For pure relentless greed and evil few television characters will ever match George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) who has come to camp to buy up mining claims particularly the rich claim of the vulnerable Mrs. Ellsworth.

    This season "Deadwood" ratcheted up to a new level of  intensity with the arrival of Hearst in camp. One of his early moves was to buy the hotel of the camp's Mayor, E. B. Farnum, (William Sanderson) a sniveling coward who is so terrified of Hearst that he obeys his order not to clean t spit off his face for fear of death.

    Having bought his hotel, Hearst knocked out a hole on the second floor so he could walk out and have a commanding view of the street. It put him on direct sight line with Swerengen's balcony as the men repeatedly faced off both literally and figuratively.

    The tension that had built all summer, however, fizzled out in the final episode. Hearst finally bought out Mrs. Ellsworth. He also rigged the election to oust Bullock and put his own corrupt team in place. Trixie in a fit of rage had tried to kill him with a derringer but just winged him. For this she had to die. But another innocent whore was scarified in a scheme to deceive Hearst and spare Trixie who was the only person in town with the courage to stand up to a monster. Seemingly satisfied Hearst rode out of town just behind the widow Ellsworth and her adopted daughter Sophia now headed back East. There was a resolution of plot lines but that seemed less than satisfying. Truth is HBO might well have kept "Deadwood" going for another couple of seasons so this was more a business than aesthetic resolution. "Deadwood" will be missed.

    While the flawed "Rescue Me" will be back next season with another 13 episodes. Bet on Tommy surviving the fire. After all he has to take care of  his estranged pregnant wife Janet, whom he raped in one of the most controversial episodes of the season. But she may be bearing the child of his now dead cop brother who shacked up with her just prior to being gunned down a couple of weeks ago. His wake and burial was also the setting for an over the top wedding. Are you following this? If not you get the drift of how "Rescue Me" ended the season in freefall. Too bad as this is a series you really want to care about.

    Next week FX reboots "Nip Tuck" a drama about upscale plastic surgeons and their dysfunctional lives. It was a drama that mostly had us coming back week after week until it crapped the bed in the season finale. It was so stupid and corny that I am giving the season a vote of no confidence. Perhaps I will just skip over "Nip Tuck" and anticipate another riveting season of  "The Shield" or an iffy "The Thief."

    Overall, however, "Deadwood" and "Rescue Me" spared viewers from months of boring reruns. At least two nights a week there was something fresh to anticipate. And, during the slow, hot summer, that's saying a lot.