Created by David Milch
Starring Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker
What does a western on HBO mean? Well, it means gritty drama, a good bit of nudity, violence, and strong language. While all of this is fun to be sure, it doesn’t make a good television series. Deadwood ended with some of the stories not told to competition. So how was the show? Was it good and it got cancelled early or did it just not get the network support it deserved?
Deadwood tells the story of a small pioneer town called Deadwood obviously. Cowboys, and gold miners, and of course criminals and entrepreneurs all made their way to Deadwood hoping to find riches in gold mining or starting businesses. Two men show up in town to build a hardware store hoping to make money on all of the construction and gold mining. One of these men, Seth Bullock, is a former lawman and it’s not long that he finds himself wearing the star again trying to tame this lawless town. Bullock is a brooding, almost angry man, that just wants to do what’s right. Bullock often finds himself at odds with a local saloon owner named Al Swearengen. It would be easy to say that Swearengen is a villain but that label doesn’t quite fit. He’s definitely out for himself but he has a certain morality and he cares for those closest to him even if he shows that caring in some brutal ways. David Milch (NYPD Blue) crafted a group of characters peppered with familiar names such as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane that defy categorization. This is rough living for these early adventurers and as good as they may want to be they also have to fight to survive. So no one’s an absolute in this world.
This is a different sort of western that may be off putting to fans of traditional westerns. There are fights and shootouts but they are few and far between. This show is a character driven drama first and foremost that just happens to be set in the old west. The character stories built into the main story of the building of deadwood are almost all fascinating and dramatic in an earthy and real way. Bullock has made sacrifices for his brother that never affected him until he met a widow woman played by Molly Parker fighting for rights to her dead husband’s gold mine. He falls in love with her but his circumstances don’t allow him to do anything about that. Wild Bill Hickok’s character is appropriately charismatic and entertaining but his story is told to competition in this series. If you don’t know that story it won’t get spoiled here.
Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane anchor this series and they handle that responsibility fantastically. Olyphant plays Bullock as a man about to boil over at any moment. He knew his instincts aren’t always right so he tried to keep himself under control while McShane does the polar opposite with his character. He’s loud, hot tempered, and just as intimidating as Olyphant in a much more real way. Molly Parker, Brad Dourif, Paula Malcolmson, and Robin Weigert round out an amazing ensemble cast that all seem to bring the best out of each other. This isn’t really an accurate retelling of the story of Deadwood but many real elements of the true story are mixed into a fantastic modern drama. Sure, it’s violent, it’s also not nice to women often, and there’s tons of bad language, but all of these elements seem the most true to the time. The biggest problem is that the story wasn’t fully realized because HBO didn’t renew the series. They couldn’t afford the two big budget shows simultaneously, so they put their money into Rome. Opinions vary on whether that was a good decision or not.
This 1080p widescreen presentation is truly filmic and striking throughout the run of the show. Deadwood was shot and produced like a feature film and all of that work comes through on these blu-ray discs. Detail level is outstanding and contrast is nearly spot on. Black levels are deep but still allow for great detail in darker scenes. Colors are perfectly rendered with an antique look and skin tones are as they should be. The only thing that hurts this presentation is a few instances of a drop in resolution that really stand out in an overall outstanding presentation.
The audio presentation here is fairly basic and front loaded outside of some small flourishes here and there. With that said the DTS HD Master track is one of the better sounded TV series soundtracks out there. Balance is great and dialogue always comes through loud and clear. When those little moments do light up the surround speakers it’s quite immersive. Just makes you wish there was more. The sub woofer won’t be getting any use even though the balance is so solid, too bad really. Again, this is TV and for TV it sounds great.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The 13 disc collection comes packaged in a plush box textured to feel and appear like an old book. The packaging is very appropriate, shelf friendly, and respectful to the quality of the series. There are tons of bonus features in this set. The biggest issue is that you can’t just go to the last disc for them. They’re spread across a few of the discs within the set. There are supplements at the end of each season and additional supplements on the last disc.
There are a bevy of commentaries in this set from cast and crew and overall they’re all interesting, some are more professional and others more conversational. Some of them focus heavily on character while others feature on set anecdotes and production stories. All together these commentaries offer up a wealth of information about the show and the people who made it happen.
There’s a nice selection of featurettes that delve into the world of Deadwood too. “Making Deadwood: The Show Behind the Show” is brief press kit sort of featurette that briefly looks at the making of the series. There are some cast interviews and discussion or writing and historical accuracy. It’s brief and it has a marketing bent but it’s still fairly interesting. “The Real Deadwood” is a half hour documentary about the real town and there’s some mention of how the real history relates to the show.
“The New Language of the Old West” is a discussion with David Milch and Keith Carradine about the language of the show. They discuss the writing of the series and the overall western atmosphere that the creators went for with the series. This is intimate and very interesting. “The Real deadwood 1877” is more information on the history of the real town but it all focuses on season two events such as the telegraph. “The Making of Episode 12” is a really detailed 71 minute look at the creation of this season finale. There’s discussion of the process Milch goes through for story creation, the work the actors do to prep, and the production itself, all centered on this episode.
“Deadwood Matures” is another historical look at the town as it relates to the events of season three. All of these featurettes have been fascinating and they tie together well. There’s a photo gallery mixing real Deadwood images with promotional ones from the show, a featurette focusing on the relationship between Bullock and Swearengen.
“The Meaning of Endings’ is perhaps the most interesting of all of the bonus features. Creator David Milch walks around the set of Deadwood and discusses his show. He was asked to share where the show would have gone and where it would have ended had it continued. He does share some of that information but at one point it’s obvious he goes off script and truly shares his emotions about the show being cancelled and what it really meant to him to work on it. This isn’t marketing, it’s raw emotion, and it’s refreshing. “The Real Deadwood: Out of the ashes” is one final historical featurette that wraps up the history of the town as we know it from the show. There’s a cast Q&A, audition tapes, and a set tour too.
The bonus features, even though they are spread across several discs are comprehensive. This sort of presentation is what a show of this level of importance requires.
Deadwood is one of those shows that are a victim of the studio and network system. It’s easily one of the best western television shows ever produced and one of the best dramas on TV at the time of its broadcast.
The Movie 10/10
The Video 9/10
The Audio 8/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 9/10
Overall (Not an Average) 9.5/10