Another stunning HBO series finds its way to Blu-ray. DEADWOOD, loved or hated by many, is for me one of the best-written and most engaging shows ever to find its way onto our advancing boob tube. Right up there with THE WIRE. Yeah, I’ve heard all the complaints about its use of contemporary profanity, and there are arguments supporting and condemning that, but to all those who take issue, I say get over it. This is some of the most compelling storytelling you’re likely to see on television (or anywhere, for that matter) and DEADWOOD’S cast turn in performances no award show could do justice to. Hey, if you don’t like Westerns, great acting and vivid dialogue–of both the poetic and barbaric variety–then do stay away. But if you’re genuinely interested in something outstanding on just about every front, then rent the Blu-rays of all three seasons of DEADWOOD. It’s true that the show was cancelled before Milch could bring the story to a full close, but since DEADWOOD’S characters are based on real-life individuals, there’s no story-line a quick trip to Wikipedia won’t bring to a satisfying (and downright historical) close.
To elaborate more on the show itself, I’ll let Blu-ray.com‘s Kenneth Brown tell you more as he has summed it up better than I. But you’ll have to visit the web site itself for Mr. Brown’s full review of the Blu-ray transfer and what it has in store for you. In the meantime, here are some of Mr. Brown’s thoughts on DEADWOOD the series:
Entrenched in real history and teeming with notable men and women who lived in the late 19th century, Deadwood tells the unsavory, at-times explicit tale of a crime-infested South Dakota boom town that experienced a rapid economic and cultural expansion during the Black Hills Gold Rush of the mid-1870s. The town, of course, is Deadwood (a settlement deemed illegal by the U.S. government because it was established on land promised to Native Americans in a 1968 treaty), and its diverse denizens come from all walks of life. Amidst the greed and madness rise two men — Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a former lawman who finds himself wearing a Sheriff’s badge once again, and Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), a temperamental entrepreneur, crime lord and pimp who holds enormous sway in the community — stubborn adversaries struggling to bring very different brands of law and order to Deadwood. But Bullock isn’t just a true-blue do-gooder and Swearengen isn’t the inhuman monster he first appears to be. Both men are far more complex creatures of habit whose destinies are intertwined.
Between them, a string of opportunists, killers, immigrants, prospectors, vagrants, thieves, gamblers, Old West icons and honest family folk, each one vying for a piece of the Black Hills’ riches. People like Sol Star (John Hawkes), Bullock’s business partner and faithful friend; Trixie (Paula Malcomson), a prostitute fighting to survive; Cy Tolliver (Powers Booth), a Swearengen rival; E. B. Farnum (William Sanderson), Deadwood’s mayor; Alma Garret (Molly Parker), widow and available bachelorette; Whitney Ellsworth (Supernatural‘s Jim Beaver), kindly prospector and all around good fellow; Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), legendary gunman and feared quick-draw; Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), compassionate scout and frontierswoman; Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif), Deadwood’s physician; Mr. Wu (Keone Young), a foul-mouthed Chinese power player; and a slew of others (played to perfection by Garret Dillahunt, W. Earl Brown, Anna Gunn, Titus Welliver, Jeffrey Jones, Ricky Jay, Kim Dickens, Dayton Callie, Leon Rippy and other notable character actors), some loyal to Swearengen, some desperate to see Bullock prevail, some simply hoping to stay above the fray.
And oh, what performances Milch’s impeccably cast actors deliver. Olyphant draws strength from stillness, and his perceptive stare and unshakable stance lends his presence palpable authority (with or without a badge tucked beneath his jacket). McShane is as vile a devil as television has known, but the fragility and humanity that beats within the Deadwood demon’s heart is as deftly developed as it is masterfully portrayed. Malcomson’s fearless resolve demands respect even when her character’s decisions demand otherwise; Parker’s reserved demeanor and genteel spirit masks the conflict and addiction coming to bear on Alma’s soul; Boothe is arguably more vicious than McShane, bringing with him suitable menace and gravitas; Beaver is a breath of well-intentioned air in a dank and dangerous world; Carradine infuses his episodes with a sense of no-nonsense wisdom and nobility, even if his time in Deadwood is woefully brief; Douriff is a delightful jumble of nerves and knowledge; Weigert’s initially bullish masculinity soon softens and reveals something far more substantial; and the whole of the ensemble, regardless of the size or breadth of the individual actors’ roles, exudes calculated charisma and slow-brew intensity. Each one grabs a hold of Milch and his writers’ material as if it were Shakespeare’s finest, and their classically honed, meticulously refined performances are akin to those of a sprawling stage play born out of a bygone age.
Shakespeare’s name is haphazardly invoked in many a critical analysis, but other comparisons between Deadwood and the Bard’s work hold tremendous weight. Milch’s dialogue, though laced with near-gratuitous levels of modern profanity, is confidently constructed and crucial to whatever blessings or curses befall Deadwood; its Midwest rhythms, dense diction and gold-rush colloquialisms as poetic and lyrical as they are gruff and unseemly. (Don’t misunderstand: it isn’t difficult to keep up with the characters’ conversations, but the sheer complexity of the language employed makes second and third viewings a rewarding experience.) His characters, bristling with unkempt tempers and violent dispositions, are an unlikable band of strangely endearing riff-raff; each one an intriguing human being defined and warped by their volatile environment and the lawlessness of the era. His exploration of the politics, socioeconomics and cultural realities of the late 19th century are inexhaustible; his team’s attention to detail is overwhelming and the series’ ever-evolving production design is breathtaking and authentic; the themes he tackles and the questions he poses have no easy answers; the misfortune that unfolds and the victims that are discarded along the way elicit genuine emotion; and the stories that emerge are as mesmerizing and engrossing as they are unsettling. From beginning to end, over thirty-six episodes, Milch’s mind concocts a maze of moral ambiguity that turns the traditions of the genre on their ear, weaves a fascinating tapestry of bleak history and smart fiction, and suggests the once-stalwart TV Western could still one day make its triumphant return.
As for Deadwood‘s three-season lifespan, have no fear. While Milch certainly didn’t have the opportunity to go as far with the show as I’m sure he would have liked, the story is still a satisfying one, many of the various character arcs come to some manner of fruition, and the series’ conclusion, despite a number of loose ends, wraps things up nicely. Whether by foresight or design, Milch’s tendency to focus on more singular aspects of Deadwood life — be it business, politics or the changing tides of power — makes each season feel complete unto itself, and each successive season a welcome extension of an already full and generous tale. Rome and Carnivàle (an unexpected surprise I would love to see released on Blu-ray) weren’t so lucky, mind you, and the ramifications of their early cancellations are more readily felt in their final seasons. In other words, there’s little reason to avoid Deadwood: The Complete Series. It may not have been able to sustain itself in the cutthroat world of ratings, but it deserves as many chances as newcomers are willing to give it.