My first real job away from home was in Thompson, Manitoba. There wasn't much on TV up north and some of what you did get was canned. A local station aired week-old tapes from down south, including week-old news and weather, along with last week's hockey games.
Now it seems I've come full circle. These days, my favorite TV shows are rarely served fresh. I must wait long after their original airdates, then trundle on down to the video store to pick them up when they finally arrive on DVD. It's a bit of a pain, but definitely worth the wait. The best stuff on TV right now is on HBO.
Deadwood is my current amour. A gritty, cynical Western soap set in a lawless Gold Rush boomtown, season one of Deadwood features a selection of magnificently evil bastards and probably the most inventive profanity ever heard on the small screen. Deadwood mythologizes the Old West, but does so from a historical basis -- almost all the main characters in the show are based on real people, from Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) to lawman-turned-hardware merchant Seth Bullock (Tim Olyphant), the man who would one day spearhead the creation of Yellowstone Park.
'Hateful and compelling'
Saloon/brothel keeper Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) has the quality needed for a great villain -- he is both truly hateful and, with his vicious charm and malevolent intelligence, genuinely compelling. Like so much of the best HBO programming, Deadwood can be unpredictable, setting up dramatic assumptions, which it then subverts.
When rival brothel keeper Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) arrives in town with his fancier girls and upscale gambling (craps, no less) it appears that he will play the whoremonger with a heart of gold, a noble counterbalance to the evil Al. Not hardly. Cy turns out to be a guy who would pimp out Little Red Riding Hood if he could. And he does. He and Al develop the kind of wary mutual respect probably shared by hammerhead sharks. (The fact that Little Red Riding Hood turns out to be a wolf herself is in keeping with Deadwood's uplifting message that in this town at least, virtually everyone is on the make.)
True, Deadwood bears some resemblance in structure, style, and tone to its HBO stable mate, Carnivale. But that's not a problem when the writing is this good. Robin Weigert's portrayal of the real-life Calamity Jane alone is worth the price of admission -- an explosively insecure, yet gentle soul who cannot seem to comment on the weather or the price of beans without incorporating the term used to indicate a performer of fellatio.
So much major network programming disappoints by comparison. Even old standbys like Law & Order have gotten tired (long ago, in that case). I have never understood the appeal of CSI in any of its various guises and new offerings like Invasion are pallid tripe (although I confess I may have been too hard on Prison Break, which does at least entertain). By contrast, watching HBO dramas highlights the damaging compromises that mainstream broadcasters are forced to make to avoid offending Middle America.
HBO is not available north of the border by legal means. Many of the US cable channel's programming can be found tucked among the lame cinematic offerings of the Movie Channel. But it's cheaper and more efficient to simply rent the DVDs when they finally appear.
And there's the rub. Waiting for this stuff to arrive is a drag. Season three of the superb HBO series The Wire has long been complete, but has yet to appear in stores -- in Vancouver, season two is barely available locally (check Videomatica). Season two of Carnivale is likewise absent. Delayed gratification is the curse of DVD TV.
On the other hand, there is the joy of binge eating. When a show finally does arrive, you get to pig out -- assuming some other fellatio performer hasn't rented the only copy. No waiting for next week's episode. Just dive right into the nasty doings of The Sopranos, or the mysterious events of Carnivale, or the undercover police politics of The Wire, or even the aboveground shenanigans of Six Feet Under (perhaps the most acclaimed series of all, and one which I never did appreciate. But knock yourself out). There are others I have yet to investigate, such as Entourage. And there's always a backlog of Sex and the City for those who miss those old Friday night viewing parties with the gang.
Avoiding media reports of already-revealed plot details is another difficulty of the DVD approach. I used to skip the sports section in the Thompson newspapers so the score of next week's hockey game would be a surprise. That's the price you pay for living in the boonies.
Steve Burgess is The Tyee's couchridden culture critic.