Deadwood features notorious lawman Hickok, but Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger wonders why people in town only call him by the last syllable. Apparently, it's because he's a sucker.
Our reviews of Deadwood: The Complete Second Season (published May 23rd, 2006), Deadwood: The Complete Third Season (published November 7th, 2007), and Deadwood: The Complete Series (published December 8th, 2008) are also available.
A Hell of a place to make your fortune.
The first thing you'll notice about Deadwood is that it aims high. The DVD packaging is striking, a nice sepia-toned box with a classy fold-out inside to hold the DVDs. When you put the first DVD in the player and work through its haunting menu to reach the episode proper, you'll be greeted with one of the most cinematic, artistic, and telling introductions ever. The plaintive strains of a raw Western ditty mesh with hyper-realistic shots of muddy wagon wheels, heaving horse flanks, bloody butcher blocks, and a sweeping shot of a rough-and-tumble town. Like the titular town itself, Deadwood does not mess around. Is this all just pretty window dressing, or does Deadwood follow through on its lofty aims?
Facts of the Case
To make a long story short, Deadwood depicts the events surrounding the formation of Deadwood, a town nestled in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory during a time of very poor white man–Native American public relations. With no abiding law or governance, Deadwood is held together by the uneasy collaboration of ambitious, striving, and rough men and women who are seeking a first or second chance to make their names. Among them, but simply representing the tip of the iceberg:
• Gem Saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane, Lovejoy), a ruthless businessman who knows, manipulates, or kills everyone in Deadwood.
• Former lawman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant, The Girl Next Door), who comes to Deadwood to establish a hardware store and leave the heavy responsibility of enforcing the law.
• Society woman and laudanum addict Alma Garret (Molly Parker, Bliss), on her own for the first time and stranded in town.
• Resident creepoid Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), a doctor with great skill and an almost vanquished sense of morality.
• Financial whiz Sol Star (John Hawkes, Identity), friend and partner to Seth.
• Trixie (Paula Malcomson, Tombstone), a whore with the ability to kill people and yet show deep kindness.
• Hotel operator E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson, Newhart), a shrewd, cowardly man with a deep well of greed.
• "Wild Bill" Hickok (Keith Carradine, McCabe & Mrs. Miller), celebrated lawman/gunslinger with a gambling problem and the desire to slip out of the limelight for two seconds.
• Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert, Angels in America), the cussin'est, fightin'est lady you're liable to meet.
• Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown, The Alamo), Al's right-hand man in misdeed.
The season contains the following 12 episodes on five discs, with one disc left over for extras:
• "Deadwood" (with commentary by David Milch)
Whether it's because I'm primed to identify a good guy and a bad guy in Westerns or because the show takes pains to set up the contrast, Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane seem like the "stars" of Deadwood. Their characters do a fine job of establishing opposing views on what the fledgling town could be, and the actors command the roles with authority. Seth Bullock could easily have been a goody-two-shoes, and thus less interesting, but the writing and Olyphant's hints of restrained aggression give us a character who could be the worst bad guy in town under different circumstances. That makes him a compelling good guy, which is not easy to accomplish. Al Swearengen follows suit. His scruples are never in doubt; he's as clear a bad guy as you could fathom while maintaining a semblance of authenticity. McShane carries the burden of Swearengen's malice with dark dignity, but somehow manages to make us question whether Al Swearengen has a sense of fair play. He truly wants to improve the town, and he may even like his fellow denizens. True, everything is motivated by greed and an alpha-wolf mentality, but he evidences humanity you might not expect. It is difficult to identify with a cold-hearted murderer, but we can, and that's what makes Deadwood tick. It is also what led to his Best Actor award at the Golden Globes.
Once you get past those two, it is a toss-up to identify the stars of the series. Each actor leans into the role with gusto, giving us an ensemble cast of surprising quality and uniformity. Though some characters may seem minor or supporting, each is fully formed. Whether it's Brad Dourif's creepy Doc Cochran, Molly Parker's Alma Garret, Robin Weigert's prickly Calamity Jane, W. Earl Brown's brutish turn as Dan Dority, or another of the rich characters that grabs your attention, the truth is you can't miss with any of them. Actors are the clearest entry points for audience identification with a television series, and the actors in Deadwood keep you busy mulling their relationships and behaviors.
The actors are key to making a series work, and we'll return to them shortly, but a show must have a clearly formed concept and strong writing to be successful. More than anything else, the concept and writing distinguish Deadwood.
Series creator David Milch has an ear for dialogue, and you'll get an earful of it. It quickly becomes clear that there's no rootin'-tootin's, aww-shuckses, or confound-its in Deadwood. There are lots of things you can suck or fornicate with, and you'll be told to do so on a regular basis—and if you don't like it you'll be told where you can go and what you can do while you're there, in graphic terms that leave little to the imagination. Milch's prose blends this eye-popping profanity with a curiously sophisticated vocabulary, as though the little education the pioneers did possess was of exceptional caliber. The words take on unique cadence, delivering precise and sophisticated concepts with roundabout crudity. The dialogue is so distinctive that is has become a central point of contention.
Though I'm articulate, I curse a lot. I was raised not to, which may explain my fondness for forbidden words. But my facility with creative cursing pales in comparison to what Milch has written here; it is most impressive. But let's say for the sake of argument that you aren't as fond of profanity as I am. In that case, Deadwood will give you pause. In fact, it is the kind of bald-faced audacity that will cause some of you to protest to your governor or the FCC about the indecency of American media.
The profanity is but one element of the show's concept, however. Milch has done nothing short of reinventing the Western, reinventing it so thoroughly that it subverts the traditionally conservative genre. (He owes a debt of gratitude to Tombstone, but he takes his own concept far enough to distinguish it from that film.) In one fell swoop, traditional Westerns are rendered disingenuous. Milch aims for verisimilitude without absolute historical accuracy. In other words, he does not want to be constrained by the obsessive pursuit of factual detail that might impede the freedom of his storytelling (like what happened to The Alamo). Instead, Milch creates a Deadwood based on fact, but with a realistic sense of how people might have behaved, looked—and spoken. The truth is, certain environments demand coarse language if you want to fit in. For example, when I worked construction between graduate school semesters, I learned quickly that the louder and more often you curse, the less grief you'll get from coworkers. If you don't cuss, you aren't trusted. The same held true on the factory floor where I worked to build cars. It isn't that the people who work construction or factory jobs are uneducated hooligans, it's that the culture of the factory and construction site embraces counterculture.
If it's true for our civilized factory floors, I suspect it was even more so in the lawless South Dakota frontier. The Deadwood in Deadwood may not accurately depict the real Deadwood, but it certainly feels authentic. Note the state of Trixie's face from episode to episode; she is beaten in Episode One until her face is a bloody mishmash, but the bruises change color in the next episodes and finally recede. Touches such as these sell the environment. From specific costuming decisions to styles of speech, each character gives us an impression of how a subset of American culture may have acted or behaved at the time. Nonetheless, the argument of the detractors cannot be ignored: Is Milch directly attacking the conservative stance that permeates American culture? Are his characters overly realistic to make a point about the current state of American society, and the contrast with the roots it was founded upon? It is a plausible argument.
Unlike in films where the director is king, executive producers are the key figures in television. Directors and writers come and go with each episode, but the executive producer is always there to guide the series and keep its mark consistent. The producer becomes a meta-director, directing the episodes indirectly by explaining the vision to the director within earshot of the actors. In fact, Molly Parker and Keith Carradine state as much in their episode commentary, explaining how Milch's thoughts on the show put them in the correct head space to act their parts. Even so, the directors and writers of each episode deliver compelling twists on the Deadwood universe. Each story takes a slightly different tack, so we never grow accustomed to the show. Deadwood continually puts the viewer in a state of unease. The intricate tension of the stories, violence of the environment, audacity of the writers, and nuances of the acting combust into a bonfire of drama and spectacle. As each episode strode forward, I found myself wrapped in a spiral of increasing anxiety. When one subplot waned, another two popped up to take its place. Characters you would expect to be major are not, while characters you don't expect take precedence. I don't want to give away too much about the actual plots, because it would rob you of the experience of processing the episodes as they occur. Let's just say that you shouldn't take anyone's actions, personality, or fate for granted.
Though each episode has its own tenor, common themes unite the season. Al's pragmatism is one, Seth's mounting frustration is another. Yet the clearest unifying elements are not theme, but nods to traditional Westerns. For example, each episode ends with a hook that nicely closes the episode but also makes you crave to see what will happen next. This technique was employed by serial Westerns of old to keep viewers hooked, but the ruse was clumsily implemented. Deadwood's take is more sophisticated, providing closure while inviting anticipation, and allowing the next episode to unfold organically from that point.
Deadwood is enriched by a striking audiovisual experience. The opening credits set the pace, and the episodes follow suit. Detail is hyper-realistic, as though the set designers and makeup artists have anticipated the prying eyes of high-definition television. Colors are slightly desaturated, but done so with purpose to give the show a distinctive look. I suspect that the color manipulation helped to integrate CGI effects, and it works; CGI is used extensively throughout the series, and I truly did not notice it. Aside from a smidge of edge enhancement, the series looks razor sharp with bold contrast and no distractions.
Audio lives up to the video standard. The music has an antique flavor but retains a modern sensibility, which invigorates the episodes while setting the proper mood. My one complaint about the music is an artifact of the DVD boxed-set phenomenon: The main theme is reprised several times, which grew a shade tiresome. In the natural course of broadcasting, this would not have been a concern. Beyond music, we have crystal-clear voices and immersive background effects, which combine to make Deadwood come alive.
Though HBO sets the standard for groundbreaking television programs, they're less known for providing extra material. Anchor Bay shows us what is possible with the stunning depth of their boxed sets, such as Xena: Warrior Princess and Highlander: The Series. HBO hasn't gone all out, but they have provided a decent slate of extra material that delves deeply into the roots of this show.
"Making Deadwood: The Show Behind the Show" is the featurette you'd expect, a promotional fluff piece with a veneer of restraint and gravity to make it less irritating than other featurettes of its ilk. Far more substantial is the historical featurette "The Real Deadwood," which takes us through a detailed account of how historical fact was converted into creative television. As we hear from various experts and historians, we gain deeper respect for Milch's conscientiousness. Yet I can't help but wonder if this carefully constructed argument was created to deflect criticism. Call me cynical; there's a decent chance the label is apt. The final two featurettes are neither distinct nor featurettes; they are two halves of one staged interview between Keith Carradine and David Milch. This interview is the heart of the special features, giving us clear, engaging insight into Milch's intentions and the way he executed them. Fans of the series, detractors, and those interested in filmmaking or television production will be in heaven.
The four commentaries vary wildly. Given Milch's lucidity in the two-part interview, you might expect the first commentary to be the best one, but it is actually the driest. I can't explain that one; you'd think he'd have reams of trivia to share. Keith Carradine and Molly Parker fare better. The two trade casual banter, though they fear interrupting each other so much that the track has frequent dead spots. They have the self-awareness to make fun of their own silence, though, and that counts for something. Both Keith and Molly have distinctive, pleasant voices, so simply hearing them converse is easy on the ears. Molly gets to break out of character a bit, even dropping the F-bomb at one point. About time that she gets in on the swearing action! My one criticism aside from frequent silence is that the actors fall into the reflex of gushing praise for the other actors. Every actor is guilty of this to some degree, however, and the back patting is balanced by concrete analysis of blocking and directorial style. Better still is the tag team of Brad Dourif and Robin Weigert. They do a great job of filling the aural space, and their comments get to the core of the matter in ways that will touch the hearts of viewers who have been swept into the series. Both Robin and Brad have detailed knowledge of each character's personality and eventual orbit, and they use that knowledge to provide rich insight into the episode. They don't step on each other's words often, and they balance their speaking time equitably.
That leaves us with the final extra, a commentary by the actors who play archrivals Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock. Ian McShane and Timothy Olyphant assume shades of their characters, razzing each other on the way to one of the most hilarious Mystery Science Theater 3000–style commentaries I've ever seen on an official studio release. Timothy discusses what a pain in the ass horses and crooked saloon keepers can be, riding Ian like a broken-down mule. Ian fills us in on the finer points of Doc Cochran's breast augmentation service and the Deadwood spin-off series. (Want a hint? Let's play hangman! Here's your puzzle: CSI: C_ _ k S _ _ ker Investigations.)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Deadwood's distinctiveness is also its main stumbling point. The peculiar combination of highbrow dialogue and crude imagery winds around the actors' tongues and causes them to stumble. Most of the line deliveries are fluid and natural, but almost every actor betrays the sheer concentration required to get the words out. This causes momentary peeks behind the curtain, showing us actors instead of characters. The trade-off is well worth the occasional awkwardness, and it is not a poor reflection on anyone's acting ability. Rather, it is another sign of the ground that Milch is breaking with the series.
It may be a huge coincidence, but the standout episodes in the series also happen to be the ones with commentaries: The memorable introductory episode where Seth faces down an angry mob before arriving in Deadwood; the closing episode that makes us ache for Season Two to arrive; the palm-sweating "Here Was a Man," which is laced with palpable menace and desperation; and "The Trial of Jack McCall," the episode that represents a major turning point for nearly every character in the show. I didn't see any true stinkers among the rest, but some of the intervening episodes are slow. Westerns are character based, Deadwood has a lot of characters, and the show occasionally gets mired under the sheer weight of them. These wayward forays could damage the direction of the series over the long haul if left unchecked.
Deadwood joins Band of Brothers on the list of "DVD Boxed Sets That Look Cool but Don't Fit on Your Shelf." My DVD shelf space is tightly planned, within a few millimeters, and Deadwood is gonna have to sit front-to-back instead of side-to-side.
If you're looking for cutting-edge television with high production values, look no further. If you also happen to enjoy Westerns, run, do not walk, to the store and pick this one up. Unless, of course, you like Westerns for their clean-cut presentation of high thrills and dashing heroes—in that case, run, do not walk, as far away as you can.
This court does not have jurisdiction over the lawless Dakota Territory. May God have mercy on your souls.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Cast and Crew on Four Episodes
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