HBO // 2004 // 2160 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // December 2nd, 2010
A hell of a place to make your fortune.
As home to several of the best television shows of all time, HBO never quite knew what to do with its historical western drama Deadwood. Dismissed by many because of its period setting, its literate, purple prose or its occasional extreme unpleasantness, Deadwood never found the mainstream success of The Sopranos or even the critical attention of The Wire and was unceremoniously canceled after just three seasons. To call that a shame is too gross an understatement, as Deadwood is every bit the equal of both other shows. See for yourself with the new HD release of Deadwood: The Complete Series on Blu-ray.
Welcome to Deadwood, South Dakota, a lawless camp run (for all intents and purposes) by one Al Swearengen (Ian McShane, Death Race), a cunning and violent man with no interest in relinquishing his power. Into camp arrives Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant, The Girl Next Door), a former marshal out of Montana who has come to open a hardware store with his partner, Sol Star (John Hawkes, Small Town Saturday Night). Also in arriving in camp is legendary gunman "Wild" Bill Hickock (Keith Carradine, Nashville) and his partners Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert, Things We Lost in the Fire) and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie, Halloween II). As Deadwood continues to thrive and expand -- helped in no small part by the gold mining boom and valuable claims like the one owned by the privileged Alma Garrett (Molly Parker, The Good Shepherd) -- more and more parties attempt to seize power, including Cy Tolliver (Powers Booth, Tombstone), who arrives to open a casino and brothel to compete with Swearengen's Gem Saloon.
As the series progresses, outside forces continue to close in on Deadwood, forcing the camp's inhabitants to form unlikely bonds. Both the Dakota and Montana territories begin vying to annex the camp, and a wealthy and mysterious prospector by the name of George Hearst (Gerald McRaney, The A-Team) commissions a geologist (Garrett Dillahunt in one of two roles he plays during the show's run) with a predilection for killing prostitutes. Eventually, Hearst himself arrives in Deadwood, threatening to cause an all-out war as Swearengen and Bullock attempt to hold back the forces that would bring and end to the camp as they know it.
Movies have always been and will continue to be my first love, but damn if television hasn't given the movies a run for their money in the 2000s. It's hard to say at this point if movies seem generally worse because TV has gotten so good over the last decade, of if the decline in quality of films only makes television seem much better. I'm inclined towards the former, if only because the long-form storytelling possibilities of a TV series allows for bigger, richer experiences.
Whatever the case, it's just a long-winded way of getting to the fact that David Milch's short-lived HBO series Deadwood is one of the best the medium has ever produced, rightfully standing alongside The Wire and The Sopranos as the Gold Standard of television. It unfolds like a highly addictive novel, dripping with period authenticity and punctuated by some of the best, most profane dialogue ever uttered on screen -- the language of Deadwood is pure poetry. Far more successfully than, say, Scorsese's Gangs of New York, Deadwood is an examination of America's blood-soaked birth, and functions just as well as a historical piece as it does as a metaphor for the way that societies come together and how each person within it contributes. It is brilliant television.
Let's disregard, for a second, the fact that Ian McShane's central performance as Al Swearengen (the unofficial king of Deadwood) alone makes the series worth watching -- his a mythic character, as layered and complex and brilliantly performed as James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano but receiving about one-eighth of the recognition. Any show whose heroes are the pairing of Timothy Olyphant and John Hawkes is worth watching. As Seth Bullock (a character he would later play a variation of on the FX series Justified), Olyphant is all steely resolve and moral certainty; watching the way his dynamic with Swearengen evolves over time -- the way the men learn to live in compromise with one another if they're ever going to achieve their common goal -- is what's at the heart of Deadwood, and what makes the series so much better than just about anything else on TV. It's easy to picture another version of the series in which Bullock and Swearengen are cast as polar opposites (in fact, Deadwood begins pretty much that way) and plays out as a pissing contest between the two over the course of three seasons. But Milch is too ambitious for something that simplistic. He, like both Bullock and Swearengen, understands the big picture of it all and, as such, never takes the series in quite the direction you might expect. All the way up to its final episode, Deadwood never loses its ability to genuinely surprise.
The show's supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches of great character actors: Powers Booth, Ricky Jay, Brian Cox, Gerald McRaney, Keith Carradine (whose portrayal of "Wild" Bill Hickock is one of the best things about the show; shame his time is so short) Brad Dourif, W. Earl Brown, Dayton Callie, John Hawkes, William Sanderson, Titus Welliver, Jeffrey Jones, Peter Jason, Keone Young, Leon Rippey, Stephen Tobolowsky -- -- need I continue? There are more great faces on Deadwood than in a Sergio Leone movie, but because it's 36 hours long, Deadwood has the time to develop every one of its faces into full-blooded characters. These aren't just individuals lurking the backgrounds, either; Milch is too smart to cast an actor like Leon Rippey as the propietor of a saloon and then have him do nothing but tend bar when appropriate. Every actor and character becomes part of the fabric of the show, drawn together not only by circumstance but by a need -- the camp, after all, lives or dies on the backs of its inhabitants, and that realization creeps in to everyone's minds as the series progresses. Deadwood is all about the taming and eventual death of the wild west in favor of the slow construction of our modern society (and not just from a historical perspective), from the acceptance of rules and laws to the way we must all fill in respective roles, even if that means assuming responsibility we may at first resist. Beyond the writing and the performances, beyond the incredibly compelling drama, it is this that gives Deadwood its weight.
The 36 episodes making up Deadwood: The Complete Series are spread out across 13 discs (nine discs of episodes, plus four discs of bonus features) in one relatively compact, sturdy hardcover-book case that looks great on the shelf. Each episode is presented in its original 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and the full 1080p transfers are pretty terrific. Blacks are solid and deep, and fine detail is excellent; this is a show whose story is largely told in the faces of men, and the Blu-ray presentation allows you to see every crack, line and scrape in these weathered, wonderful faces. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio track is equally stunning, albeit in a subtle way. It's rarely booming or bombastic, instead offering tremendous dimensionality and immersion. Most importantly, though, is that the show's profane, poetic dialogue is easily audible at all times. It would be a shame to miss even a single turn of phrase.
If you've already got the Deadwood seasons on DVD, you're not going to find much new content here (until you get to disc 13; more on that in a minute). The good news is that all of the extras have been ported over from those releases, meaning you get all 17 commentaries from the likes of Milch, Olyphant, McShane, Powers Booth, W. Earl Brown and more. You'll also get a boatload of familiar featurettes, presented for the first time in HD. For Season One (presented on the fourth disc), you get "Making Deadwood: The Show Behind the Show," a standard making-of featurette; "The Real Deadwood," which helps put the show's events in their real historic context; "An Imaginative Reality" and "The New Language of the Old West," both conversations between Milch and star Keith Carradine. On disc eight are the supplements for Season Two: "The Real Deadwood: 1877"; "Making of the Season Two Finale," a three-part documentary that runs over an hour, and a collection of images called "Deadwood Daguerrotypes." Season Three's extras are found on Disc 12: "Deadwood Matures," "The Education of Swearengen and Bullock" and another "Deadwood Daguerrotypes" image gallery.
It isn't until the bonus 13th disc that you'll find anything new to this collection. First up is "The Meaning of Endings," an interview with Milch in which he discusses what would have come next for many of the characters if the show had gone into a fourth (and likely final) season, touring the various Deadwood locations as he discusses each storyline. "The Real Deadwood: Out of the Ashes" is another historical documentary that allows the viewer to draw comparisons between truth and its dramatization, while an hour-plus "Q&A" gathers Milch, executive producer Gregg Fienberg and most of the show's principal actors for a riveting discussion of the series. An interactive tour of the camp, called "Deadwood 360," isn't terribly compelling. The final bonus feature might just be my favorite: it's a joke compilation of stars auditioning for the role of Swearengen, all played by co-star Titus Welliver. I've been a fan of Welliver's for several years now, but this piece puts my affection for him in the stratosphere. His impressions of Milch, Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Robert Duvall are the best I've ever seen (and, let's face it -- everybody does Pacino and Walken) and demonstrate that Welliver is an insanely gifted mimic -- a skill I hope some savvy director will someday put to good use.
If I have a complaint about Deadwood: The Complete Series, it's not really to be levied against the show itself. I was disappointed in the conclusion, but that's because HBO pulled the plug on the series at the end of Season Three and Milch was never allowed to finish what he had started. Yes, there are a number of what could be read as satisfying conclusions for supporting characters, but I'd be lying if I said that the series didn't feel somewhat incomplete. For a show like Deadwood, which has to be taken as an entire piece, that's particularly problematic. Still, it's hardly a dealbreaker for what is one of the best TV shows of all time, and I suspect that I'll someday come to terms and possibly even begin to like the way the series resolves.
If you already own Deadwood, I can't necessarily say that the HD transfers -- stellar as they may be -- and a single disc of new extra features is worth the upgrade. If you're new to the show and are a fan of brilliantly written, flawlessly acted TV dramas that you'll want to return to again and again and again, I can't recommend this Blu-ray of Deadwood: The Complete Series highly enough.
Not f***ing guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 2.0 Stereo (French)
* DTS 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 2160 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Interactive Tour
* Official Site