David Milch has been involved in or co-created some of the most memorable shows in television history. With a career going back to Hill Street Blues, or more recently the fantastic NYPD Blue, Milch has always done exceptional work. Deadwood is his tour de force and the culmination of a brilliant career. The series was nominated for twenty-two Emmys, won seven, and also won a Golden Globe for Ian McShane’s performance.
For those of you that missed the show on HBO, it is now available as a Blu-ray box set of the complete series.
The show is set in Montana in1876 and a gold rush has brought about the creation of the town of Deadwood as independent prospectors have come to search for gold. With all of the traffic arriving, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) makes a nice profit by selling both liquor and prostitutes from his saloon. Others, like Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Sol Starr (John Hawkes) arrive in town to build a hardware store that will provide all of the mining tools needed for the prospectors. While the gold is plentiful, the town and every business in it prospers and with the increase in size also comes with the potential for trouble. With no law enforcement, the only person that has the pull to take the law into his own hands is Swearingen because he has a lot of money and also because his Gem Saloon is the heart of the town.
Through Deadwood, David Milch wanted to explore how a lawless community becomes a civilized society. Although he originally was going to explore those ideas in Roman times, he had to switch it to the old West because of HBO’s other show Rome. Milch found that those ideas would work just as well if not better in a lawless town. As he said, “What I was really interested in was the development of law and order, or, specifically, how does order develop without law. In new societies, in frontier societies where there is no central authority, how does order develop? It isn’t just a matter of brute force; even brute force can only be used by somebody with an idea of order. How does chaos evolve into order?” Representing order on the show is Seth Bullock who is eventually made sheriff of Deadwood while Swearengen represents the unrestrained chaos that is destined to be swept away by “progress.” These two men are more alike than they would care to admit, as they are opposite sides of the same coin.
With order and progress also comes government oversight, which is something that the people of Deadwood fear more than anything since they are aware that their town isn’t legally recognized which has provided them freedom from fees and regulations. The town’s prosperity is evident throughout the show. When the first season starts, the town’s buildings are unfinished and over the course of the show become more structured and permanent. That’s a good example of how the show captures the the era’s life and tribulations with a lot of authenticity. Fights over claims, the importance of gold and how it changes the town, and how a diverse melting pot of people and ethnicities will band together to survive. The show also illustrates how the how the old-fashioned beliefs of individualism in the wild west would eventually be assimilated by larger business interests and monopolistic corporations.
All of those issues are tied into every episode as underlying subtext which adds an additional philosophical aspect to the show. The scripts for the show are highbrow, lowbrow, hilarious, authentic, and much as been said about the show’s lyrically profane language. It’s been reported that the word “fuck” was uttered 2,980 times over the course of the series and 43 times in the first hour of the show alone! When HBO raised their concern about the language, they asked Milch to write something about his choice of language in case they were harassed by the FCC.
Milch ended up writing a five page statement that ended with, “If, as seems demonstrable, words like prick, cunt, shit, fuck and cocksucker would have been in common usage in the time and place in which ‘Deadwood’ is set, then, like any words, in form and frequency their expression will be governed by the personality of a given character, imagined by the author with whatever imperfection, as the character is shaped and tested in the crucible of experience. The goal is not to offend but to realize the character’s full humanness.” No one delivers Milch’s lines better than Ian McShane who turns every syllable and inflection into a master work of acting perfection. His Swearengen is a murderer, a pimp, a businessman, and on occasion a good guy. His main concern is himself but at the same time he will do all he can to protect Deadwood from outside control both for selfish reasons, but also because he’s invested in the town.
His usual opponent is Seth Bullock who reluctantly took on the position of Sheriff and is intent on keeping an eye on Swearengen and his enterprises. Bullock is a good but flawed man who’s main conscience is his partner Sol Starr. There is a seething rage that Bullock keeps bottled up and the only thing that keeps him in check is the badge that he wears, (which is probably why he took the job in the first place). Bullock has no problem working outside of the law if needed and he occasionally does. No one torments him more than Swearengen, who provokes Bullock just to show him that he isn’t as civilized as he would like to believe. Further complicating Bullock’s life is his attraction for a local widow (Molly Parker) despite the fact that his dead brother’s wife and son were expected to join him as a family once the town was settled.
Rounding out the wonderful cast is Swearengen’s henchmen who are just as corrupt, evil, and funny as their boss. Swearengen’s number one man is Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown) who does all of his dirty work. Then there’s the town’s hotel owner and erstwhile Mayor E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) who fears Swearengen as much as he kisses his ass. Farnum is a true weasel who allies himself with whichever way the wind is blowing (although he’s usually Swearengen’s man). Johnny (Sean Bridgers) keeps the girls in line along with Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) who takes care of their medical needs. Then there’s the inscrutable Wu (Keone Young) who only knows about three English words but handles the laundry and dead bodies that Swearengen sends him.
Last but not least are the supporting characters and guest stars. Deadwood seems to attract some very talented people including, Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Brian Cox, Titus Welliver, Gerald McRaney, Jeffrey Jones, Garret Dillahunt, Stephen Tobolowsky, Anna Gunn, Dayton Callie, Robin Weigert, Paula Malcolmson, Kim Dickens, Jim Beaver, and Ricky Jay. All of them added a lot to the show and I especially like Carradine’s world weary Wild Bill Hickok. Powers Boothe brought a ruthless yet humorous contribution to the show and McRaney’s George Hearst was just as capable of evil as Swearingen, but he also took pleasure in it. There were so many excellent performances throughout this show that it’s impossible to list them all but every single person on this show gave 100% including David Milch who wrote such wonderful dialogue.
I never was able to see this show in high definition (I don’t get HBO), so I always had to settle for DVD so I’ve really been looking forward to seeing this show on Blu-ray and I wasn’t disappointed. This 1080p (1.78:1) transfer looks incredible! Finally having the ability to see details long missed really gives viewers just another reason to watch the show all over. Flesh-tones are normal and the black levels are no longer slightly washed out like they were on the earlier DVD release. Despite the high level of detail, some flare-ups of noise are present but that may just be due to the artistic style the show was filmed in. Because of that style there is some slight grain present but it just makes it look more cinematic and does not impair the picture quality at all. I am still amazed at how much better this looks compared to the the DVD!
This DTS-HS Master Audio 5.1 surround track is flawless. This is an extremely well balanced mix that provides every channel with a lot of activity. The rustle and bustle of the town is heard all around you, while the the sound field constantly pans across the room to follow the action on the screen. The LFE has a welcome and impressive presence and the music comes through beautifully as well. Dialogue (which is one of the main enjoyments of this show), is crystal clear and comes through a lot better than it on the earlier release.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but HBO doesn’t slouch on quality on anything, especially the special features. This set boasts seventeen commentaries, several behind the scenes looks, historical featurettes, photos, tours of the Deadwood set, a Q&A from the Paley Center, and so much more that you will spend hours soaking this all in. All of these extras are in HD.
- Audio Commentaries with the Cast and Crew – Seventeen episode commentaries are offered throughout the three seasons of the show, including “Deadwood” with creator David Milch, “Here Was a Man” with Keith Carradine and Molly Parker, “The Trial of Jack McCall” with Brad Dourif and Robin Weigert, “Sold Under Sin” with Ian McShane and Timothy Olyphant, “A Lie Agreed Upon” with Molly Parker and Anna Gunn, “A Lie Agreed Upon” with Ian McShane and Timothy Olyphant, “Complications” with Gregg Fienberg, “New Money” with David Milch, “E.B. Was Left Out” with Kim Dickens, William Sanderson, Dayton Callie and a separate one with Powers Boothe and Garret Dillahunt, “Advances, None Miraculous” with John Hawkes and Paula Malcomson, “The Whores Can Come” with Timothy Olyphant and Anna Gunn, “The Whores Can Come” with Ian McShane and Paula Malcomson, “Tell Your God to Ready for Blood” with Gregg Fienberg and Mark Tinker, “A Two-Headed Beast” with Jim Beaver, Sean Bridgers and W. Earl Brown, “Amatuer Night” with Robin Weigert, and “Tell Him Something Pretty” with David Milch. These have a lot of good info but the best ones are the ones with Olyphant and McShane who have a lot of laughs together and listening to them is a lot of fun.
- Making Deadwood: The Show Behind the Show – Re-purposed from season one, this is a generic overview of the show from David Milch and Gregg Fienberg host this featurette where they discuss their motivations, the historical accuracy, the story, the characters, the dialogue of the show, and how it all comes together.
- The Real Deadwood - A look back at the actual history behind the town of Deadwood that was real interesting to me, but then again I love history.
- The New Language of the Old West – Keith Carradine (Wild Bill Hickok) interviews David Milch in this humorous featurette to discuss the language of the show and the reasons for it and what purpose it serves.
- An Imaginative Reality – Another talk between Keith Carradine and David Milch after season one finished. Listening to Milch it’s very easy to understand why his characters have such a grasp of language.
- The Real Deadwood: 1877 – A look into historical events that shaped the future of Deadwood such as the gold rush, telegraphs, etc. Technology forced the town another step towards becoming a civilized society.
- Making of the Season Two Finale – At seventy-one minutes, this is the highlight of the extras for me as this three-part featurette goes into fine detail with the cast and crew about the entire process of making this show. The spotlight is on the writing for the show (“Trusting the Process”), details about Mr. Wu and Chinatown and how they play into the story-line (Mr. Wu Proves Out”), and a look behind the scenes of (“The Wedding Celebration”). All of these are very well done and informative.
- Deadwood Daguerreotypes – Thirty-three old-time photographs of both the cast in character and also some historical pictures as well.
- Deadwood Matures – A look back at the results of the election of 1877 and the ramifications of the election returns.
- The Education of Swearengen and Bullock – Another favorite of mine since it concerns my two favorite characters. Both cast and crew discuss the complicated relationship between Swearengen and Bullock and their differences and also the similarities between them.
- Deadwood Daguerreotypes – Another forty pictures of Deadwood back in the day.
- The Meaning of Endings – David Milch walks around the abandoned set of Deadwood to discuss the ending of the show and also acknowledging the fact that the abruptness of the cancellation upset a lot of fans who wanted more closure. He attempts to wrap up character plot-lines and discuss what season 4 would have been about but he is obviously depressed and says so. Very interesting to see especially since I was one of those fans clamoring for another season. I really wish Milch and HBO would give us those two Deadwood movies they talked about long ago.
- The Real Deadwood: Out of the Ashes – A collection of historians talk about the real history of the town and lament that it’s now overrun with casinos and the fact that the actual town burned down completely long ago.
- Cast and Creative Team Q&A – A talk at the Paley Center with most of the cast and crew along with HBO president Carolyn Strauss, David Milch, Gregg Fienberg, Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, Robin Weigert, Paula Malcomson, Powers Boothe, John Hawkes, Anna Gunn and Molly Parker. This wasn’t as informative as I hoped it would be, but it did have a lot of laughs and Olyphant was particularly funny when asked about whether or not he did any research for the show.
- Deadwood 360 – A tour of the town along with some episode background along with it. A lot of good info on this one.
- Al Swearengen Audition Reel – I had no idea that Titus Welliver (of LOST fame) was such a talented mimic. In this, he plays every role in a one man audition session by impersonating David Milch auditioning the following actors (all played by Welliver): Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro. This was very funny and I think Welliver has another career waiting for him if he decides to quit acting.