David Milch, already a seasoned showrunner in the mid-aughts with experience from NYPD Blue, came to HBO with plans for a new TV series about the rise of a civilization. He was originally thinking of Rome, but that ship had already sailed with an upcoming show co-created by Bruno Heller and John Milius. Instead, Milch turned to the Old West. After all, if you are an American and want to portray the rise of a civilization, why not examine your own quite recent past?
100 years after the creation of the United States of America, and after gold is found in the Black Hills, Deadwood is established out West in the Dakota Territory. When we are introduced to the town it has existed for a couple of years. There is no law and order in Deadwood, only lots of gold-diggers, gamblers, whores and various entrepreneurs hoping to make a buck one way or another. The town is largely dominated by the Gem Theater, a saloon owned by the ruthless Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) who knows exactly how to cut deals and when to employ violence.
His authority is challenged by Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a newly-arrived hardware-store owner who is later made sheriff and not easily swayed by the general corruption and violence of the town.
Finding the foundation in a book
The show was based on real characters and Deadwood still exists today, a South Dakota town with only 1,200 inhabitants but a historic district that lures tourists. Milch had picked up a copy of a book by historian Watson Parker, which became sort of a foundation for the show. Highly ambitious, Deadwood realistically depicts a moment in American history that may seem very alien to us now, where you could depend on exactly nothing and no one, family and closest friends excepted. With no government in sight, with capitalism completely unfettered, all you had to do if you wanted power was simply to take it and kill whoever stood in your way. The show presented numerous examples of the consequences of such a dirty society that had nothing but contempt for the weakest, be it blacks, the handicapped or women in general. Milch put all kinds of brutality and sexism of the day on display, and the show’s florid, challenging, almost Shakespearian dialogue was peppered with profanity; the word “fuck” and its variations were used so liberally it inspired parodies. Deadwood’s primary strength was its production value and the excellent cast, headlined by McShane in an uproarious, often darkly funny performance as the cruel Swearengen who took on every rival with glee and cunning.
The writing was more varied. At its best, Deadwood breathed new life into the Western genre and portrayals of some of its mythic figures such as Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickock and Wyatt Earp. At its worst, the show got bogged down in its intrigues without creating the kind of tension it flirted with, that would have attracted audiences and perhaps spawned a longer run.
After three seasons, there was talk of TV movies that would provide a proper ending, but it took 13 years until one materialized. There was certainly a lot more to tell about these heady days. But Deadwood still accomplished in three years what some TV shows fail to do in 13 years.
Deadwood 2004-2006:U.S. Made for TV. 36 episodes. Color. Created by David Milch. Theme: David Schwartz. Cast: Timothy Olyphant (Seth Bullock), Ian McShane (Al Swearengen), Molly Parker (Alma Garret), Brad Dourif, W. Earl Brown, John Hawkes, Paula Malcolmson, Dayton Callie, Leon Rippy, William Sanderson, Sean Bridgers, Jim Beaver, Jeffrey Jones, Kim Dickens, Powers Boothe, Robin Weigert, Anna Gunn, Gerald McRaney (05-06).
Trivia: Followed by Deadwood: The Movie (2019).
Emmy: Outstanding Directing 03-04. Golden Globe: Best Actor (McShane) 05.
Quote: “God rest the souls of that poor family… and pussy’s half price for the next 15 minutes.” (McShane feeling generous after a killing)
Last word: “You have to understand, that writing style was something [Milch] had never done before. I don’t think anybody has ever written for television like that. It was based on reading a lot of stuff that people wrote in that era. He made people talk like they wrote, which was a very interesting choice. Swearing all the time. It was this very odd, modern Western. But it was difficult [for the cast], because you had to memorize everything perfectly, and there was no time to memorize. That was really, really difficult. I’m a very slow study. One time he gave me something that was incredible. I had to do it the next day, and he backed off of that and said, ‘No, this is too good. I should really give you some time to get this ready.'” (Dourif, Yahoo)