Here comes the new

Deadwood and the historiography of capitalism

RP 180 () / Article

We are swept up, are we not, by the large events and forces of our times?

A.W. Merrick, Deadwood, Season 3

Shown across three twelve-episode series that began in 2004, Deadwood is one of several recent television programmes to develop long, serially formatted narratives of a complexity and scale hitherto unusual in its medium. Produced by HBO, the American subscription cable network also responsible for The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Treme and Boardwalk Empire, Deadwood was devised and overseen, until its unexpected cancellation in 2006, by the writer David Milch – a one-time literature academic who is exemplary of the kind of auteur figure increasingly associated with such new television works.1 Set between 1876 and 1877, during the last years of the ‘bonanza frontier’, just prior to the historical Deadwood’s annexation by the United States, and weaving together multiple storylines spread across a large ensemble cast, Deadwood is comparable, in particular, to the more celebrated The Wire (2002-08), in that a good part of its immediate novelty resides in the unusual and striking breadth of social vision it achieves through the televisual representation of a particular historical moment and place.

It is unsurprising, then, that in extending beyond the biographical or family-focused narratives still typical even of other ‘complex’ series of the last decade -including The Sopranos or AMC’s widely lauded Breaking Bad – the critical reception of both shows has invited comparisons less to cinema, the traditional artistic reference point of television ‘drama’, than to the ‘epic’ forms of the nineteenth-century realist novel.2 In part this is a function of sheer length (around thirty-six hours’ viewing in the case of Deadwood), which makes possible an expansiveness of representation lacking in both film and more conventionally episodic television. This is one consequence of the break offered by new broadcast technologies from the temporality of the traditionally assigned ‘time-slot’, which favours the self-contained episode as against the construction of longer narrative arcs.3 But it might also be thought to identify both Deadwood and The Wire with one ‘popular’ dimension of what has been described as a larger re-emergence since the 1990s of ‘something akin to a realist impulse … not only to describe, witness or give testimony to the new phase of capital accumulation, but also to account for, analyse, respond to and intervene in it’. It is such an impulse that has encouraged a remobilization under changed historical circumstances of the totalizing and ‘connecting values of realism’: knitting together the individual with the socially collective (in a form of which The Wire is exemplary), and conjoining and putting into interaction the otherwise fragmented worlds of different classes and milieux.4



Some of the material for this article was first provoked by an invitation from Ben Noys to talk about the Western at a Historical Materialism conference in London in 2012. Thanks to him and to Alberto Toscano for discussions at that event, as well as to Alex Warwick for many hours of DVD watching.

  1. Other obvious (and exclusively male) examples would include David Simon (The Wire, Treme), David Chase (The Sopranos), Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood), Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Newsroom), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) and Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad). Milch himself has subsequently gone on to make two further series for HBO, John from Cincinnati (2007) and Luck (2012), both of which were cancelled after one season.
  2. Such comparisons are evidently alluded to in one episode title from The Wire’s final series: ‘The Dickensian Aspect’.
  3. Most importantly, the capability provided by the DVD box set and on-demand online streaming for viewers to ‘time-shift’ programmes, making it possible to watch several hours of a series in one go, has begun to dismantle what Raymond Williams famously described as ‘the fact of flow’ as the ‘central television experience’. Consumed as tangible commodity objects ‘published’ in the shape of conveniently paperback-sized DVDs, serialized programmes such as Deadwood assume the character of newly discrete, individual ‘texts’ to be taken as a self-contained ‘aesthetic’ whole (Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Fontana, London, 1974, p. 95). As a result, a programme like The Wire, ‘though televisual at the level of production, is almost re-novelized by its consumption in DVD format’, as John Kraniauskas has noted (John Kraniauskas, ‘Elasticity of Demand: Reflections on The Wire’, Radical Philosophy 154, March/April 2009, p. 33). Anecdotally, it is worth noting that, outside of the USA, I have yet to come across anyone who has not watched Deadwood in this way.
  4. Gail Day, ‘Realism, Totality and the Militant Citoyen: Or, What Does Lukács Have to do with Contemporary Art?’, in Timothy Bewes and Timothy Hall, eds, Georg Lukács: The Fundamental Dissonance of Existence, Continuum, London and New York, 2011, p. 205; Christopher Prendergast, The Triangle of Representation, Columbia University Press, New York, 2000, p. 132. See also, on the ‘return to realism’, Matthew Beaumont, ed., Adventures in Realism, Blackwell, Oxford, 2007