Deadwood: Season 1 - Review
Review by Richard Goodwin
Western drama from the imagination of creator David Milch (NYPD Blue) set in the 1870’s, charting the rise of Deadwood from a small camp settlement to town.
Deadwood is a blend of fiction and historical truth, with many legendary figures making an appearance such as Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Seth Bullock.
Beginning in 1876 we first find Deadwood as a small makeshift settlement on Indian land prior to its annexation to the Dakota Territory.
As it’s set prior to annexation, and Deadwood is on Indian land and therefore not considered a part of the United States, there’s no law at this point and no social structure in place.
The settlement is run informally by saloon owner Al Swearengen who has his hand in nearly all the pies and nothing happens without his say so.
When ex Montana Sheriff Seth Bullock arrives in town with his partner Sol Star to set up a hardware store Bullock and Swearengen soon butt heads and this is the main focus of the series, along with the continued development of the camp as government continues to impose itself.
Anyone expecting classic western clichés need not look here; the series is set up conventionally but evolves into a kind of subversive anti-western.
Deadwood is a brutal place and the series is punctuated with bursts of explicit violence, but the main talking point of the show is its use of profanity.
Surely never in the history of television has there been a show with this much swearing. In fact, even the liberal HBO at first baulked at the excessive profanity and Milch had to write a five-page essay on why it should be included.
At first, it’s almost distracting but after a while it becomes a kind of language of its own – there is a Shakespearean feel to the dialogue and after a while the excessive swearing becomes so matter of fact that you begin not to notice it.
The show is primarily character driven and moves at a surprisingly slow pace. This is required, though, due to the many layers of the story and the multiple narratives.
But it slowly creeps under your skin and before you know it you’re hooked as each plot strand winds towards its inevitable bloody conclusion.
Being character driven it is, of course, vital to the show’s success that the main characters are kept interesting and to this end Ian McShane and Timothy Olyphant are superb.
Both give their characters depth and are on top form throughout. McShane, as Al Swearengen, steals the show with what must be considered one of the great TV creations.
Swearengen is by turns charming, funny and frightening. His aim is to develop a society at all costs and has no problem in killing and conning his way towards his ultimate goal.
If swearing was an Olympic sport, then Swearengen would undoubtedly be a multiple gold medal winner and makes Joe Pesci from Goodfellas seem like a Disney creation. Despite his undoubted lack of any morality you just can’t help rooting for him.
And despite clearly being the bad guy he still shows glimpses of goodness and compassion that give the character enough human quality to prevent him becoming a two dimensional caricature.
Equally, Olyphant’s Seth Bullock is another character of surprising depth. The temptation again must have been to leave Bullock as the stereotypical good guy that populates most westerns.
But this is avoided here by the dark edge that Olyphant gives Bullock. At first, he appears to be all upright moral virtue but we soon see that he is, in fact, a ball of repressed emotion.
When properly motivated Bullock frequently explodes into acts of brutal violence, which at times are quite shocking. At heart, he’s a killer and Olyphant’s portrayal of Bullock’s inner conflict gives the character a tension that undercuts his good guy status.
In addition to the two main leads the supporting cast is also terrific. But special mention must go to Powers Boothe as rival saloon owner Cy Tolliver, Brad Dourif as Doc Cochran and Keith Carradine as legendary gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok.
When first aired in 2004, Deadwood received almost universal critical acclaim and quite rightly so. It’s one of the most complexly layered shows to ever be screened and boasts superb performances from an excellent cast.
It may take a while to get into it but ultimately it proves to be worthy of being right up there with The Wire and The Sopranos as one of HBO’s greatest products.
Not for everyone certainly (the excessive swearing and explicit sex and violence may be too much for some) but a remarkable series that deserves great credit and is a captivating watch from start to finish.