It's generally said that it's better to burn out than to fade away, but that still doesn't take the sting away when something gets taken from you in its prime, be it a band that broke up before you got to get your fill or a TV show that was axed from the airwaves before coming to its natural conclusion. Case in point? HBO's Deadwood, a remarkably well made series that was only given three twelve-episode seasons to pull us into its filthy world before kicking us out again. A fourth season was talked about, as were some feature films, but they never happened, making it all the more tragic that the show was cut down in its prime and this in spite of loads of well deserved critical acclaim. That said, at least it did go out in a blaze of glory, with a bang rather than a whimper.
For the uninitiated, the series is set in the late 1800s in the camp of Deadwood, South Dakota during the gold rush that occurred in the Black Hills which drew loads of people there in search of their fortunes. Deadwood was built on land that was given to Native Americans in a treaty and as such, was not subject to the regular laws of the land. The U.S. Government shut it down at one point, but when we meet a former Montana State Marshal named Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and his partner Sol Star (John Hawkes), the town is pretty much in a state of 'live and let live' - unless you cross the wrong person , that is, and there are plenty of wrong people to cross. Seth and Sol arrive in town with the intent of setting up a hardware store and soon rent a plot of land from Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), the owner of The Gem Saloon and proprietor of booze, whores, opium and all manner of other misdoings. There's tension between Bullock and Swearengen from the start, but eventually he sells them the lot and they build their store. While this is going on, Wild Bill Hickock (Keith Carradine) and his entourage move to Deadwood, setting off a series of events and no small amount of controversy.
As the various key players go about their business, relationships are formed, alliances are broken, and an excellent cast of supporting characters are introduced such as the town's only physician, Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif), the proprietor of Deadwood's only hotel, E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson), a troubled prostitute named Trixie (Paula Malcomson), and Swearengen's competitors, Sy Tolliver (Powers Booth) and Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), not to mention a wealthy widow named Alma Garrett (Molly Parker) and the local newspaper man, A. W. Merrick (Jeffrey Jones). Of course, as it is with any television series, as the show progresses, different characters come in and out of play for different reasons but the core of the series revolves around Bullock and Swearengen for the most part, and the power struggles that they find themselves in. Throughout the three seasons we watch these characters evolve, some quite drastically, and we see the town itself grow from what was basically a camp to a full-fledged town.
The first season starts off simply enough and the series takes three to four episodes to really hit its stride but once the primary characters are introduced and we've got enough information on them to find them interesting, the show really starts to pull you in. First and foremost in what makes this series work is the writing. Series' creator David Milch, who cut his teeth writing cop dramas like N.Y.P.D. Blue and Hillstreet Blues, has surrounded himself with a talented group of co-writers who have completely succeed in creating effective and believable characters. Not only that but they've set them in a world that, while loosely based on actual historical events to a certain extent, stands as one of the most fascinating to appear on television in ages.
While primarily a drama, the series effectively mixes in elements of comedy, romance, action and tragedy resulting in really well rounded show that doesn't stop surprising until it's finished. The series became a subject of some controversy for its language - at times it seems like every other word is fuck or cocksucker - and this element of the series is absolutely going to put some people off but Milch and his team deserves credit for raising the art of profanity to new heights. Once you become used to it, it's hard to imagine the series any other way, the foul language simply becomes a part of the series and the characters that populate it. Is it exaggerated? Very likely, but again, after your initial exposure to the foul mouthed denizens of Deadwood, you wouldn't want them softer or watered down, their respective dialects and predispositions to profanity simply become parts of their personalities.
As strong and detailed as the writing is, it wouldn't work without the aid of a talented cast and on that level, Deadwood is pretty much flawless. Supporting efforts from the likes of great character actors such as Brad Dourif, Jeffrey Jones, Keith Carradine, and William Sanderson offer excellent support to more powerful performances from the likes of Olyphant, Booth and McShane. Not every character in the series is an alpha male like these three are, but you couldn't ask for better actors to portray them (even if Booth doesn't get nearly as much screen time as the other two). McShane's Swearengen runs the town with an iron fist and while he is absolutely a criminal through and through, he's not without his own moral code. McShane gives Swearengen such magnificent screen presence that he steals almost every scene he appears in, dominating his supporting cast members and giving his character very real power. Olyphant is every part his equal, though he's more the strong silent type. A man of increasingly conflicted emotion as the series progresses, his Seth Bullock has a lot more in common with his chief rival than either man would care to admit. As human and as flawed as the rest of us, Bullock makes for a fascinating protagonist, a strong character of obvious moral standing though not prone to mistakes now and then.
With so much of the series revolving around the two male leads, it's important that the side stories matter, and Milch and company have no problems making that happen. Whether it's a blossoming romance between a prostitute and a businessman, a widow's struggle with drug addiction, an aging gunman's gambling problem or a Madame's attempts to branch out on her own, Deadwood's supporting cast members are just as fleshed out and interesting as its big time movers and shakers. Watching the evolution of Calamity Jane, Doc Cochran, Sol Starr, Trixie and Alma throughout the show offers just as much satisfaction as anything else you could hope to watch.
Beautifully shot to take full cinematic advantage of the widescreen format it was composed for, Deadwood also benefits from fantastic production values. The attention to detail given to the sets, the costumes, the props and the overall look and feel of the series makes every episode feel like a miniature feature film. Careful attention to color composition gives the series a distinctly weathered look that perfectly captures the gritty feel of its western setting while picture perfect camera work captures it all in stunning clarity. It's all set to a fantastic selection of music, with original compositions from composer Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, that does a fine job of complimenting the drama, action and intrigue that the series holds.
So, yes, it still stings a bit that the series was chopped off at the knees and never got to run the whole race it planned on running, but the plus side of that is that the show never got the chance to go downhill. It started off strong and only got better throughout its three season run, and it stands as a testament to just how good television can get when consciously geared towards an intelligent adult audience without need to pander to network TV censorship standards.
Deadwood looks fantastic in high definition. HBO's AVC encoded 1.78.1 1080p transfers are strong from start to finish and do an amazing job of bringing the series' colorful cinematography to life. Everything from the dusty trails outside the camp to the colors of a whores make up look lifelike and natural, while periodic sepia toning and color tweaking help to maintain that 'period feel' without every coming across as corny or forced. Skin tones look lifelike and natural though depending on the characters can look quite different - a junkie in Swearengen's employ will look considerably more pale and sickly than a young Norwegian orphan girl's rosy cheeked glow, for example. Black levels are strong and deep but not at the cost of detail, which is generally excellent as is the texture noticeable throughout the show. The upgrade in quality that the Blu-ray offers over the standard definition sets provided is substantial, making it easier to appreciate the details in the series' production values from the costumes to the sets to the props to the locations. There aren't any problems with compression artifacts or edge enhancement, though eagle-eyed viewers who are looking for it might spot some minor banding once in a blue moon, and a couple of shots look to have been shot with a softer look in mind than others, but the authoring here is excellent. There's no noticeable noise reduction, leaving the gritty and grainy texture of the visuals wholly intact. A couple of outdoor nighttime scenes look just a tiny bit noisy but this is nitpicking, the series really does look fantastic in high definition and its loyal fanbase should be more than pleased with HBO's superlative efforts in this regard.
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix that this set contains sounds stunning right from the opening chords of the series' song which plays over the credits of each episode. Surround channels are used throughout the series to build atmosphere by spreading out the effects and score perfectly. Directionality is spot on, with plenty of left to right and front to back movement noticeable when the series calls for it. Ambient and background noise is very crisp detailed, so you'll pick up on not only background character voices but more subtle effects like animals in the background of certain scenes. Dialogue is very natural sounding, with Swearengen's booming voice has all the weight and power behind it that it should, while meeker characters are still easy to understand without having their dialogue pumped up at all. The more action intensive scenes benefit from strong and full bass, making each gunshot resonate properly while the thundering hoof beats of horses sound just as impressive. This series sounds pretty much perfect on Blu-ray, it's difficult to imagine anyone complaining about the work done here. Optional subtitles are offered in English and Spanish.
HBO has carried over everything that was included in the standard definition releases, and for the unfamiliar, well, that's a whole lot of supplemental goodness to dig through. Let's start with the commentary tracks, which are spread over the first twelve discs in this thirteen disc set. Here's what you'll get and who will give it to you:
Deadwood: with series creator David Milch.
Here Was A Man: with actors Keith Carradine and Molly Parker.
The Trial Of Jack McCall with actors Brad Dourif and Robin Weigert.
Sold Under Sin with actors Ian McShane and Timothy Olyphant.
A Lie Agreed Upon: with actresses Molly Parker and Anna Gun.
A Lie Agreed Upon: with actors Ian McShane and Timothy Olyphant.
New Money: with David Milch.
Complications: with executive producer and director Gregg Fienberg.
E.B. Was Left Out: with actors Kim Dickens, William Sanderson and Dayton Callie.
E.B. Was Left Out: with actors Powers Boothe and Garret Dillahunt.
Advances, None Miraculous: with actors 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 co-executive producer Mark Tinker.
A Two-Headed Beast with actors Jim Beaver, Sean Bridgers and W. Earl Brown.
Amateur Night with Robin Weigert.
Tell Him Something Pretty with David Milch.
All told, this amounts to approximately seventeen hours worth of commentary tracks to go through, and as you could probably imagine, these tracks cover a lot of ground. While not every track is as consistently enthralling as the next, more often than not these discussions are quite solid and pretty revealing. The highlights are Milch's tracks, which really let us into his creative process and get into the nitty-gritty of what he was trying to accomplish with this series and how he tried to accomplish it, but the cast tracks are excellent as well. Olyphant and McShane's discussion over top of A Lie Agreed Upon is probably the best commentary in the whole set, as it finds that perfect balance of humor and insight and allows us to get a feel for what the two principal players were going through with this series and their work on it. The producers' tracks let us in on some of the behind the scenes activity while the other cast commentaries elaborate on everything from on-set camaraderie to character development, scripting, production values and pretty much everything else you'd expect to be covered.
From there we move on to the video features for season one, starting with the featurettes found on disc four which kick off with Making Deadwood: The Show Behind The Show which is a fourteen minute documentary that allows the cast and crew of the show to talk about their characters, their historical counterparts, and production details such as scripting, sets, costumes and what not. It's a solid, if fairly standard, look at the creation of the first season. More interesting is The Real Deadwood, a twenty-six minute documentary that provides a fascinating look at the history of colonizing the Black Hills area in South Dakota where the camp was based. Historians from different areas provide plenty of background information and we get a very revealing look at the actual people who lived there during this time and who in turn inspired the show. The New Language Of The Old West is a half hour long featurette in which series creator David Milch discusses the writing of the show with actor Keith Carradine, covering the language used in the show as well as the recurring themes that are explored and how the writing crew tried to create a unique and original atmosphere in a very familiar setting. The last extra on disc four is An Imaginative Reality which is a continuation of the discussion between Milch and Carradine that covers the differences between the historical Deadwood and the fictional one, why certain changes were made, and why certain aspects were kept more true to life.
Video extras for season two are found on disc eight and start off with The Real Deadwood: 1877, a twenty-one minute follow up to the similar feature from the first season in which historians galore discuss the historical accuracies of the series when compared to recorded documents from the time. This time around, it's season specific, so it covers material as it relates to the second season and once again it is a thoroughly engaging and very enjoyable look at how truth does really tend to be stranger than fiction. From there, check out the seventy-one minute three part documentary, The Making Of Episode Twelve which introduces us to David Milch's creative process and takes us through how the series is written before then showing us how this specific episode works in so many of the series' ongoing subplots. From there we explore some of the different characters that play an important part in that particular episode and then proceed to elaborate on some of its recurring themes. Cast and crew interviews are scattered throughout as is some interesting on set footage that gives us a look at the set and production design and this is, like most of the extras in this set, a really well put together piece that really lets you appreciate all the effort that went into the series. Closing out the extras for season two is Deadwood Daguerreotypes , an interesting still gallery that showcases pictures of the cast in character with available archival photographs of their real life counterparts.
The extras for the third season are found on disc twelve and start off with a twenty minute piece called Deadwood Matures which takes a look at what happened when the results of the 1877 elections came into play and how they affected the town and its populace. Many of the same historians we've seen in some of the other featurettes appear here and offer some valuable input as they examine how Deadwood transformed from a camp into a town. The Education Of Swearengen And Bullock is twenty minutes of cast and crew interviews edited into clips from the series to show how the relationship between the town's two main players evolved over the span of the series. Rounding out the extras on disc twelve is another interesting Deadwood Daguerreotypes piece contrasting the in-costume actors with their real life versions.
There's also a thirteenth disc in the set that includes some other interesting extra features, starting with a twenty three minute piece called The Meaning Of Endings in which series creator David Milch speaks with surprising honesty about how the show was brought to an end in its third season and how the plans for a fourth season and a pair of feature films were never followed up on. Obviously not particularly happy about all of this, Milch discusses where he would have taken the series and the characters and how he would have liked to finish things. This results in a very bittersweet featurette -obviously what we got with the three seasons of the show was great, but it evidently could have been quite a bit more had it been given the chance. The Real Deadwood: Out Of The Ashes is a half hour featurette with the same group of historians who have been used throughout the set to provide a look at the real history of the camp and its evolution, and this last piece with them focuses on how the camp became the town with a look at the evolution of the fire department and why that was so important. Like the rest of the featurettes with the historians, it's very interesting stuff. The Q&A With The Cast And Creative Team is a sixty-five minute discussion recorded in 2005 and moderated by Variety's Brian Lowry in which most of the principal cast and crew members talk about their experiences on the show, the themes it deals with and the characters who populate it. There's a fair bit of overlap between this featurette and some of the other ones but it's still interesting enough to check it. It's also the only featurette in the entire set that's in standard definition, the rest are in HD. Rounding out the extras on the thirteenth disc are the eight minute Deadwood 360° Tour in which Milch talks to us about the sets as does designer Maria Caso, and the ten minute Al Swearengen Audition Reel where comedian Titus Welliver does a quick one man show impersonating celebrities like Pacino and DeNiro as if they were auditioning for Ian McShane's role.
All thirteen discs are housed inside a slick, full color hardcover book containing some nice graphical representations of the different characters from the show. It, in turn, fits inside a classy, sturdy slipcase. It might be a little thing to some people, but it's definitely a classy and appropriate packaging style.
A riveting work of gritty cinematic poetry, Deadwood may not have lasted as long as it should have but it nevertheless remains one of the best television series of the last two decades. Rich with fascinating characters, set in an interesting time and in an equally interesting place, the show is expertly acted, beautifully shot, sharply paced and incredibly well written. Profane? Absofuckinglutely but it's all the better for it. HBO's Blu-ray release of all thirty-six episodes is a true thing of beauty, from the excellent transfers to the perfect audio, it treats the series with the respect it deserves by carrying over all of the engrossing and thoroughly fascinating supplemental material that the standard definition releases had and giving them a welcome high definition boost in quality. Despite the high price tag, Deadwood: The Complete Series is entirely deserving of the DVD Talk Collector's Series stamp.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.