Much like my experience watching The Sopranos for the first time, years after the mob drama went off the air, HBO’s Deadwood had long been on my must-watch list. David Milch’s gritty look at the Wild West, featuring real-life figures with larger-than-life personalities, finally made its way to my screen recently and it easily still holds its own in competition with the countless top-shelf dramas of today. I’m not alone in being late to the game — cancelled unexpectedly after running for three seasons, from 2004-06, Deadwood gained many followers post-mortem. It’s now available through HBO Go and Amazon Prime.
Set in 1870s South Dakota, Deadwood follows the early days of the camp’s development into a town with characters plucked from history, like gunslingers Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane and tycoon George Hearst. In fact, nearly every character in the series — and there are a ton, as new folks make their way to the camp each day — is loosely based on a real person from the era. Of course, they’re fictionalized for the story’s benefit. Boasting characters as colorful as their vocabulary, the show is infamous for its curse-laden dialogue — there are 55 “fucks” in the first episode alone — not entirely accurate to the era.
But that language paired with the bawdy barroom behavior is an interesting juxtaposition to the many formalities of the time. And no one can cuss quite like Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Theater saloon who presides over Deadwood, played to perfection by Ian McShane. He’s easily the star of the show, a standout in a pool of talented performers including Timothy Olyphant, John Hawkes, Molly Parker, Kim Dickens, Gerald McRaney and loads more — many of whom have gone on to star in other excellent series and films.
I knew next to nothing about the show going in, other than that it came highly recommended from friends and critics alike, and I was immediately hooked. Deadwood endures because, in addition to the stacked cast, every element is so solid (especially in the first two seasons), from the magnificent set and costumes to the compelling writing. It’s no wonder the series racked up eight Emmys — it’s only surprising that number isn’t higher.
Never a dull moment, the town of Deadwood is rife with liquor, brothels, gold mining and shoot-outs, but intense drama can also come from the everyday realities of living in the 19th-century Old West. This group of people, for better or worse, are creating a town from scratch and creating their own rules, government and justice system in a lawless land. People from across the globe have found their way to Deadwood — and they’re not all going to see eye to eye; not to mention how what today would be simple illness or injury could be a death sentence. In that respect, the growing town relies heavily upon the fantastic Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif), the town’s most valuable player and the series’ moral compass.
Deadwood ended abruptly after its three season, and it’s obvious that the final episode was not intended to be a series finale. At the time, HBO did not renew the cast’s contracts and Milch refused to do a short-order season. The writer/producer went on to create John from Cincinnati (which unfortunately isn’t really about the Queen City at all) for the network, which lasted just one season but also found some cult status after its cancellation. When the hit-or-miss anthology True Detective returns for its third installment sometime next year, Milch will write alongside creator Nic Pizzolatto. Definitely something to watch out for.
Deadwood was truly ahead of its time. If it premiered in today’s prestige TV era instead of nearly 15 years ago, it could easily have doubled in seasons. Talk of a Deadwood film has circulated off and on for more than a decade, and while it’s not certain, HBO is making strong moves to make it a reality. HBO recently secured a California tax incentive to make a Deadwood movie, which means the script has probably been written and the network has plans to officially greenlight the project. Getting the gang back together would prove to be the true hurdle — and a crucial one. Fingers crossed, Deadwood fans just may finally get the ending they’ve been clamoring for in 2019.
Contact Jac Kern: @jackern