Either Way This Comes Out, We Only Have to Do It Once
At long last, The Fatling returns to make good on her promise of some serious critical writing on the subject of Deadwood, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and the Little House series (the books, not the television show of the same title, which don’t even get The Fatling started on).
Tonight, we’ll primarily be comparing and contrasting the initial episodes of Deadwood and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. If Deadwood and Little House represent opposite extremes on the sex-and-violence in the Old West continuum, Dr. Quinn occupies a middle ground that acknowledges the darkness at the heart of the white man’s dubious claim to the frontier while still managing to be family friendly.
Since a pretty comprehensive, spoiler-free series of Deadwood recaps and commentary by the AV Club’s Todd Van Der Werff already exists here, I may jump around a bit and spoil a few things in the process. Of course, there are any number of available summaries of the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder online, but I don’t believe any recaps exist for Dr. Quinn, since the show aired before the internet/pop-culture explosion of the late nineties. This project aims to compare and contrast these three examples of frontier fiction, so I don’t intend to fill that particular void.
The last quarter of the 19th century provides the setting for all three series, the characters living (and frequently dying) in the long shadow of the American Civil War. For purposes of this study, I’ll focus on the Little House books By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years, since those books take place in De Smet, South Dakota and correspond most closely to the chronology and types of events depicted in Deadwood and Dr. Quinn. Deadwood begins in 1876, and while the action begins in Montana Territory, it quickly moves to the titular camp in what is now South Dakota. Dr. Quinn’s story begins in 1867, further west, in Colorado Springs, CO, placing it significantly closer to the end of the Civil War than either of the other two series. By the Shores of Silver Lake depicts events in the life of the Ingalls family starting in 1879.
David Milch’s Deadwood is widely considered a “reinvention” of the Western genre, but it was with pleasant surprise that I discovered Beth Sullivan’s Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman covering similar ground. Or, rather, rediscovered, since I spent many Saturday nights during my formative years eating buttered popcorn and watching Dr. Quinn’s latest exploits. Both are primarily concerned with the community that springs up in hostile Western US territories more so than the farming, mining, or other occupations of the residents.
Dr. Quinn lasted for six seasons, 150 episodes in all, plus two made-for-tv movies that aired on CBS (Deadwood fans everywhere are drooling with envy; a Deadwood movie has long been sought after as a consolation prize following its premature 2006 cancellation), which means episodes of Dr. Quinn outnumber episodes of Deadwood approximately 4 to 1. This complicates the task at hand somewhat, but only slightly. Overall, comparing the two is like comparing a Broadway musical to a community theatre production of the same show. Deadwood strives for an admirable economy of story and historical accuracy, whereas Dr. Quinn is obviously just trying to get frustrated housewives to keep showing up every Saturday night. Deadwood had the luxury of being “not TV,” airing on HBO, but obviously had trouble retaining an audience to see it through to the end of its creator’s vision.
Both pilots introduce the audience to a similar cadre of stock frontier types: the local doctor, saloon keeper, orphaned children, storekeeper, and whores. Although Dr. Quinn is concerned with the depiction of community building in the Old West, it is primarily the story of female doctor Michaela Quinn and her newly acquired trio of orphans, so that show spends much more time on setting up the challenges of practicing medicine in a harsh environment. The residents of Colorado Springs resist her trade not only because she is a woman, but also because they seem hesitant to embrace the science of medicine, period. In their view, they’ve done just fine under the ministrations of barber Jake Slicker and see no need to allow some lady doctor to poke around and diagnose them. Deadwood, on the other hand, has the benefit of being set nearly ten years after Dr. Quinn, and their medicine man, Doc Cochran, is introduced as a trusted practitioner of the medical arts.
Dr. Quinn aired a two-hour pilot episode, but the series’ true beginning is probably the hour-long episode “Epidemic,” which is notable for a number of great casting changes. There are different actors playing the key roles of Jake Slicker, blacksmith Robert E, and storekeeper Loren Bray, and I may be unfairly prejudiced in favor of the actors chosen after the pilot, but all those changes really enhance the characters themselves.
In Dr. Quinn’s pilot, the eponymous physician relocates to Colorado Springs following her father’s death (he was also a doctor in Boston). The pilot probably could have been titled “Dr. Quinn Falls Down a Lot; Meets Sully.” The “will they-won’t they” relationship between Michaela and Indian agent Byron Sully is definitely responsible for the series’ enduring viewership, and that relationship is subtly introduced in the pilot and continues until the two characters finally get around to doin’ it, sometime in the fourth season, if memory serves. Still, the pilot is a nice fish out of water scenario, as refined Boston lady Michaela adjusts to the harsh realities of life in Colorado: buying and learning to ride a horse, renting a homestead and taking responsibility for the children of her only friend, Charlotte, after Charlotte dies of a convenient snakebite.
Deadwood’s pilot also boasts an orphan, though her fate is up in the air as the episode ends. The nameless Norwegian immigrant is the sole survivor of a road agent hijacking gone bad and blamed on Native Americans. The majority of the episode is devoted to introducing Deadwood’s erstwhile protagonist, Seth Bullock, although in truth, Deadwood is a true ensemble piece. Bullock and his partner, the Jew Sol Starr, have moved to Deadwood to launch a hardware business, though it’s clear that Bullock’s background in law enforcement will die hard. We also meet Wild Bill Hickock and his companions, Calamity Jane and Charlie Utter, newly arrived in town to pan for gold, but it quickly becomes clear that Charlie will be looking on while Bill gambles and Jane drinks. Al Swearengen, saloon operator, pimp and real estate magnate appears as a force of nature, nearly killing his number one whore, Trixie, within the first fifteen minutes. Also briefly introduced are Alma Garrett, New York society lady waiting out her husband’s gold-mining scheme with the help of opiates (surprisingly, she, not Doc Cochran, provides the closest proxy for Dr. Quinn in this series) and E.B. Farnum, Swearengen’s lackey and operator of Deadwood’s only hotel.
That’s a hell of a lot of information for one episode, right? Dr. Quinn, with a sixteen-episode order for its first season alone, takes a much more lackadaisical approach to character introduction. Numerous characters are introduced in its pilot, but even the first official episode does little to expand on those characters—how can it, when most of the town’s citizens are in the grip of the influenza epidemic which helps Dr. Mike gain the trust of Colorado Springs even while it threatens her life? The melodrama is always at critical mass in Dr. Quinn, whereas a man being shot through the head by a prostitute in Deadwood is more or less treated as business as usual.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to unpack here, but with 148 episodes of Dr. Quinn left to screen, let’s take a breather for now.
*As a general rule for these posts, I’ll link to info on a particular series or actor the first time they’re mentioned, but not in subsequent essays, so, you know, deal with that.
Some people have religion; the Fatling has Deadwood.
For a long time, the Fatling, like most self-respecting bleeding-heart hipsters, counted The Wire as her favorite HBO series. This despite my belief that only the first three seasons are canon and a pretty strong distaste for the fifth and final season. It’s still a terrific show, and it introduced me to the man candy that is Idris Elba.
Sometime last year, Adoring Husband and I got our hot little hands on Deadwood and I went completely apeshit for it. It’s imperfect, in the sense that it was canceled after its third season with a wealth of unexplored plotlines, but it quickly supplanted The Wire in my affections.
So why am I telling you this? The Fatling has been searching for some sort of non-comedic writing project for some time now, prompted by the realization that, in the absence of formal schooling, my critical writing skills have turned to shit. Seriously, I cannot even tell you how many of my blog comments elsewhere have been stymied by my inability to organize my thoughts coherently. And my internet comments will not be silenced!
But it’s also a way to just get me writing more frequently in a low-stakes environment. My original idea was “Deadwood 365,” wherein I would watch an episode or special feature on Deadwood every day and then write about it. Considering my complete inability to, you know, do anything every single day, this idea was quickly consigned to the creative dustbin.
I didn’t have a clear idea on how to go about this until the other night, when I picked up my old copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town on the Prairie. I fucking loved the Little House books as a child—I dressed up as the Ingalls sisters with my friends for Halloween one year, and that same year, my mom took me to the Laura Ingalls Wilder festival in Mansfield, Missouri. Little Town was always my favorite in the series, since it chronicles the building of the Ingalls family’s final home, in De Smet, South Dakota. And as to why the Fatling is reading a children’s book at this point in her life, shut the fuck up.
At any rate, the timeline of Little Town takes place about five years after the start of Deadwood, and they’re both set in South Dakota. See where I’m going with this? Add to this the fact that one of my favorite television series growing up was Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and the blog posts almost write themselves. I’m just utterly fascinated with the American pioneers, and how they built their society in hostile, unforgiving environments. There is, of course, the ethical issue of driving Native Americans from their ancestral land, which all three of these tales touch on in varying degrees, but there’s still something about people brave/crazy enough to go out and push America westward.
So, basically, I’ll start out writing about Deadwood and see how the other stuff applies and go from there. It’s going to be a Fatling good time.