Returning to Deadwood, fifteen years on. It’s even better second time around.

Amid all of the Friends reunion bollocks, I opted for one that’s worthwhile, by watching Deadwood again.

If you haven’t seen Deadwood, drop whatever shit com, reality TV or any other drama you care to mention (with a few exceptions) that you’re degrading your brain on and binge watch this. Not only is it captivating, compelling, idiosyncratic and poignant, but also hilarious ‘I won’t fuck a Chinese, I got a mother living yet’.

Once you get past the initial pre-occupation with the profanity’s frequency (thanks mostly to this infamous scene) and you get your bearings around the dialogue’s structure, the profound commentaries of the characters penetrate more effectively. At one point Seth Bullock indirectly muses with Sol Starr about feeling guilt at his clear attraction to Alma Garret, with Bullock being married to his dead brother’s sister out of loyalty;

Sol Star:
I don’t suppose you need me to say it. But if there’s a Heaven, your brother sees what you did and he’s grateful.

Seth Bullock:
Perhaps he sees me borrowing his life so that I didn’t have to live my own.

Sol Star:
People have made good lives out of borrowed ones before.

This is only one example, but there’s many more, so many that it’s practically Shakespearian level gear.

Unknown to me when it first aired, a number of the events and characters in Deadwood are based on historical fact. However, given the show’s unique construct, it’s best to be utterly indifferent to any level of authenticity, be it partial or inconsistently applied. Regardless, splicing modern profanity with period dialogue firmly punctures realism. It’s an effective trade-off though, as the emotional struggles and plight of these characters, who lived in a period of immense geopolitical change in America’s formation, become more relatable to a contemporary audience.

Deadwood’s unusual amalgamation makes most other westerns feel tawdry and stoic, because so many elide sophisticated insight into the human psyche, characterisation and multiple plot strands in favour of the aesthetic. Deadwood takes a different tack, it’s character and plot driven first, with the characters often adopting a pessimistic, cynical, even nihilistic tone that’s synonymous with Cormac McCarthy’s work in the genre and far more suited to the setting and their existences.

It’s Deadwood’s structures of timber and canvas that ubiquitously convey the pathos of life here, as virtually all the narrative’s events occurs within its confines. Deadwood is still designated a camp, and has been as quickly cobbled together as the rush for gold. All of the dwellings and establishments are dingy, made of wood and exist in varying states of squalor, the ground of the town’s main street is a mud pit, dirt and dust constantly swirls through the air and some of the characters look so filthy and their clothing dishevelled that you could sense the stench and discomfort was unimaginable. Prostitution, drugs, drink and gambling, which constitute a large portion of the establishments in Deadwood, abound. The amount of booze consumed would shame Keith Floyd, Oliver Reed and Peter O’Toole and clearly there was no such thing as an alcoholic in the 1870’s. Life here, or on any frontier, is, in this period of history, all about adversity, and hardship makes for good theatre as it inevitably exacerbates tension whenever squabbling over money is involved. But it’s the threat of annexation by the wrong (read unsuccessfully bribed) state confederacy potentially ruling all existing titles and claims void that makes for entertaining manoeuvring by the central players.

While the sanctimonious Bullock offers a foil for all the cut-throating, stealing and scheming, and Calamity Jane brings a quixotic mix of caustic drunken levity while showing immense charity for the plight of others, the most enjoyable turns in Deadwood are still the most despicable. The insatiable greed of George ‘power comes to any man who has the colour’ Hearst and his bagman the Patrick Bateman like Francis Wolcott. Cy Tolliver is deliciously ghastly, as the cigar toting, suave, psychotic, constantly conniving pimp who’s not quite as clever as he’d like to think he is. His rival in that line of business, Al Swearengen, is in a league of his own. Al, to borrow a word he regularly uses, may be a cunt, but he’s a cunt always worth watching. No more so than when operating the grift, as a salesman temporarily offering discounts on booze and girls at his establishment, his one per episode ranting soliloquys (usually at the stupidity of someone else or as means of therapy when recalling a scarring experience from his youth – often while being fellated) or as a Svengali figure manipulating the townsfolk and his underlings, a selection of brutes, halfwits and the rodent like E.B. Farnam – the useful idiot hotel manager, camp mayor and perpetual spy – all of whom would be lost without his leadership and the sense of place, value and meaning being in his orbit provides them.

For those of us who grew up in the UK above a certain age, seeing Ian McShane’s turn as Al Swearengen; Machiavellian, lewd, unapologetic, and speaking to a severed Sioux Indian head he keeps in a box, after famously turning out as the luvvie duvvie Lovejoy, a dealer of Victorian antiques (a suitable connection given Deadwood’s set during the Victorian era), in the show of the same name, is a jarring juxtaposition. But as Jane Austen rightly observed even despots have admirable and endearing elements to their nature, and in Deadwood, where the law is decidedly grey, nothing is ever black and white. We see Al’s humane and generous side; a mercy killing, employing a heavily palsied cleaner and showing complete loyalty to those who return the favour.

I’ll avoid delving too deeply into linguistic anthropology, and without keeping a dedicated count of all the shit, cunts, fuck and fucking used, (this should help) ‘cocksucker’ is also commonly used, and serves its purpose in all contexts. In Deadwood’s era it works as a demeaning slur equated to the lowest profession, and in its modern context it packs additional heft, as in this day and age it’s seldom heard, rightfully banished for its homophobic connotations. That said, the visceral glee with which it’s used, and its scarcity in the modern lexicon, does highlight that an insult, rarely used, packs far more heft than one that often is. As with any vice from yesteryear that’s been banished as being bad for you hedonists and or the collective, or is well on its way to being; Phrenology (kidding), cigarettes, sugar, red meat, the word cocksucker has been so suppressed that its prevalence in Deadwood makes it feel like a quaint artifact. Housed within these boundaries it’s guilt free, and even offers us a safe space to enjoy it.

So what of the Deadwood film released in 2019? An epilogue of sorts set ten years after the TV series. I have no idea whether it’s good. I suspect so, but even if it disappoints, at least it enticed me to blitz though all three seasons of Deadwood proper as a refresher. And that brings us to the only negative, this show got cancelled after season three. It’s unforgivable. We deserved more. It deserved more than a two hour film for closure. It’s a good reminder to treasure something great when it comes along, as there’s no accounting for taste or common sense of the stupid cunts and fucking cocksuckers that don’t have any.

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Song Of The Day – Alternative Theme From Gay Man’s Guide To Safer Sex by Coil

From the album ‘The Gay Man’s Guide To Safer Sex + 2’ (2019)

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Song Of The Day – Flux 1 by Robert Turman

From the album ‘Flux’ (1981)

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Greed? Sure. But our indifference to UEFA’s decadence makes us equally complicit for the European Super League proposal existing.

Though we’re loathe to admit it, Gordon Gekko was right. The proposed European Super League captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit and clarifies how we feel about greed in its most brazen form.

Europe’s biggest and wealthiest clubs attempting to replace the Champions League with their own hegemony, loosely based on the American franchise model, was as inevitable as the reactions it was met with; ‘greedy fucking bastards’ (true), ‘it’s unsporting’ (absolutely) or ‘the game’s dead’ (referring to football’s soul).

While I sympathise with the disdain for its impetus, we have to see the European Super League for what it is – the result of a process we’ve happily fomented or at best willingly ignored. We’ve convinced ourselves that the slow and insidious erosion of the game’s competitive balance over the last three decades, along with its increasing economic inequality which we submissively financed, wouldn’t see consequences. Now there’s anger because that pretence has been vanquished. I firmly believe that in most instances it’s the sheer embarrassment at being made to feel so gullible, rather than the elitist nature of the new Super League, that’s riled people up. Claiming it’s the latter makes you look better though, doesn’t it?

Speaking of which, I could do without the piety from ex-playing pundits with their lips suckered on the Sky Sports teat. All of whom benefitted enormously from grotesque rises in their playing salaries after the Premier League’s formation. The European Super League breakaway may have been shameless, but so are they for using Sky Sports as a soapbox to spew populist rhetoric to appear grounded and using the issue itself as absolution for their involvement in football’s media explosion.

Make no mistake, the European Super League proposal has been a long time coming and its appeal has only grown as a litany of grievances at recent and long-running failures by UEFA and domestic football associations has too. Little doubt Covid-19 and it’s havoc on football finances was cynically wielded as a sickening justification to accelerate the timeline.

UEFA’s decadence, however, is the main cause. They willingly eroded sporting integrity over the last three decades in favour of profits, which has resulted in unwittingly conceding power to a small plutocracy of clubs. When the European Cup was rebranded as the Champions League in the early nineties there was far more financial parity in the sport, so clubs sought avarice in the margins. The increased sponsorship revenues tethered to UEFA’s renamed premier European competition, and worldwide commercialisation afforded by technological advances, changed that scope and attracted the worst kind of profiteers. Now UEFA needs the brand pull of the top clubs to maintain those sponsorship revenues. This is the destructive legacy of UEFA’s perpetual largess, where too much expansion lead to a bloated abortion of a group stage and allowed ease of access to too many clubs in the larger leagues to populate it. A mix of perpetual qualification and a relaxation on foreign player quotas has seen all the restrictions on hoovering up the best talent removed, allowing the big clubs to get stronger while weakening the rest.

A sign of UEFA’s lack of foresight and incompetence can be traced to the contentious aftermath of Liverpool’s extraordinary Champions League victory in 2005. That season Liverpool finished fifth in their domestic league and didn’t qualify for next season’s Champions League. UEFA had become so inured to the clubs winning the competition always performing well enough in their domestic league to qualify, that the scenario which left them having to fiddle a fair compromise (and let Liverpool defend their title) to save face had never arisen before. And even then Liverpool were made to go through the pre-qualifying rounds. A disgrace. Even now the winners of the World Cup have to qualify for the next finals tournament (which is equally scandalous). When it comes to sporting integrity, FIFA and UEFA’s is clearly selective.

Speaking of selective, UEFA’s complete indifference to racism is damning. Because it’s an ethical not a financial issue it’s paid lip service, with small fines and in extreme cases making clubs whose fans offend repeatedly play behind closed doors (not so effective a deterrent over the last year). However, as soon as their cash cow is threatened by the European Super League formation emergency meetings, sanctimonious statements and threats of bans for clubs were issued.

UEFA’s abject failure to implement financial fair play with any cogency or thoroughness has to grate with the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester United, who, while they may be financial behemoths, have earned their global cachet through decades of sustained success since the second World War. The ghastly (state and oligarch owned) nouveau-riche trio of PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City have audaciously abbreviated this process with complete disregard for UEFA’s financial fair play parameters. While City were banned, it was overturned by CAS on a technicality and UEFA did nothing in response but sulk. If UEFA aren’t going to make Financial Fair Play viable it’s no wonder the clubs want something that will more effectively even the playing field.

While permanent placement in the Super League, without any threat of demotion or need to qualify through domestic performance, is unfair and elitist, as was the limited number of qualification places for non-member clubs, you wonder how different this new competition would look and feel when compared to the current Champions League, where so few clubs have a realistic chance of winning the competition year after year.

To drive that point home, in the Champions League era (1992 to the present) only two clubs have managed to make the final of the Champions League who didn’t play in one of the five biggest leagues in Europe (Germany, Italy, Spain, France or England), Dutch club Ajax (twice), and Porto (once). The last club to win the competition outside of those five leagues was Porto in 2004. And since their win in 2004 no club from outside the top five leagues has even made the final. In practical terms, the current structure has ensured it’s already a closed shop.

As Juventus, Barcelona and Bayern Munich and the like are to the Champions League, so too is the Premier League heavily reliant on the brand pull of the irksomely nicknamed ‘big six’ clubs. It is they who drive interest and social media impressions, and entice broadcasters, foreign and domestic, to spend billions on the TV rights. They’re propping up the rest through even distribution of revenue, allowing them to behave well beyond their means with disgusting displays of bravura opulence to deliver rank mediocrity – see Everton’s recent transfer business and any of the catastrophic wage to turnover ratios for most bottom feeding Premier League clubs.

So the threat of domestic league bans was, and is, a clear bluff. Is anyone paying hundreds of quid a year for Sky, BT (and whatever else) to watch a league where Leicester, Everton, Leeds and Wolves are the marquee clubs, and where Reading and Hull are imported to take the place of Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United? Would the same number of Chinese, Americans and Indonesians watch and bet on this ‘product’? Not a chance.

Now the important questions – how close was this proposal to being realised? Is it likely to return soon in another guise? Or was it just leverage?

To maintain control I can envision UEFA capitulating to permanent Champions League entry for clubs based upon some historical criteria of having won the competition a number of times. Limiting it to three wins would mean only Inter Milan, AC Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Ajax, Manchester United and Liverpool would automatically qualify every season as it stands, and it could be claimed as (somewhat) merit based. UEFA’s current plan for 2024, while less extreme, already contains a not too dis-similar mechanism, allowing a safety net through accrual of coefficient points if one of the big name clubs has a stinker of season. Further tinkering with the structure of the Champions League’s format beyond 2024 is all but assured (more games, more money) as is a reformatting of the prize money to further favour the biggest clubs.

And that’s another reason the European Super League clubs moved now, they saw the Swiss model for what it is – the sign of a weak hand. While the clubs behind the European Super League overplayed their hand and were defeated this time, they’ve collated more feedback on what kind of proposal could pass for acceptable. We’re talking about ruthless people here. They know fans are against a closed model of European competition. Expect the next proposal to assuage fairness concerns while also getting the founding clubs what they want – automatic entry in all but name. If Chelsea or Barcelona don’t qualify through their domestic league, they’ll have to go through several rounds of pre-qualification as the rest of the riff-raff from Slovenia and Finland currently do in the Champions League, only they won’t play anyone who threatens to knock them out. This feels like a fait accompli either way. While the big clubs underpin the prestige and revenues of the Champions League the threat of a break away will remain and this leaves UEFA in the same bind – keep conceding ground to placate the elite clubs, or lose control over this runaway gravy train.

I hate being so apathetic and pessimistic, but I keep returning to two questions: how realistic is the kind of sweeping reform that would be meaningful? And short of that is it worth saving a competition, ran by a morally bankrupt federation, that’s been bastardised beyond all recognition from its original format, just because it’s only slightly less egregiously greedy and unsporting than its potential replacement or what it’s bound to mutate into relatively soon?

If it’s left you all numb, well good. That’s the truth and inevitability of the evolutionary spirit, what it creates it then destroys. The only certainty this situation reveals to me is that, in this instance, we’re not truly prepared for the discomfort that’s necessary to stop this process.

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Song Of The Day – That’s Entertainment by The Jam

From the album ‘Sound Affects’ (1980)

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