Over the last ten years, HBO has produced some of the most astonishing, groundbreaking programs for television in the history of the medium. Beyond their extraordinary made for television films such as Angels in America(2003) they have created dramatic series such as Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and the best one of all, Deadwood. |
Deadwood premiered last January to strong reviews and immediately found an audience in lovers of American westerns and American history. Painstakingly accurate in its detail and depiction of 19th century life in the small town in South Dakota, the series became one of the sensations of last year, earning eleven Emmy nominations and earning lead actor Ian McShane a Golden Globe for best actor.
Warner Brothers Home Entertainment is about to release the entire first season of Deadwood in a handsome collection giving viewers all thirteen episodes with a host of extras including commentary from creator David Milch and many of the series actors.
The western remains one of the most beloved movie genres in the history of the cinema. From the early B westerns through to works of art by John Ford with his favourite actor John Wayne, audiences loved watching men on horseback.Red River (1948), The Searchers (1956),Rio Bravo (1959) and Unforgiven (1992) are just some of the greatest western ever made. On the small screen we were given works such as Riffleman, The Big Valley, Bonanza and the wonderful mini-series Lonesome Dove (1988). Westerns are my favourite film genre, and when I heard about Deadwood I was intrigued.
When I saw it for the first time, I was stunned.
From the first episode of Deadwood through to the last, one could sense they were in for something special. The realism is what struck me first; the muddy, filthy streets, the thrown together stores and bars, the coarse often vulgar language, and the sudden, swift violence plunged viewers back into the American west with vengeance never before presented on television. This is as far removed from Bonanza as we get, but altogether brilliant on ever level. The first episode dealt with introductions as we met many of the characters who would populate the first season.
Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) is a marshal in Montana who wants out and moves to the Dakota town with his partner Sol (John Hawkes) to open a hardware store in the thriving town. There they encounter Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) the corrupt owner of the Gem saloon, the local watering hole and brothel, and the man who controls the entire town, deciding at times who lives and dies. Into the town rides famed gunslinger Wild Bill Hick (Keith Carradine) hoping to find gold in the hills, but more likely to find a card game he enjoys, and Calamity Jane (Robin Wiegert) a foul mouthed Indian scout more man than woman. Over the next few episodes we watch as history unfolds; Hickok will die at the hands of a coward named Jack McColl who shoots him in the back, Bullock will struggle with his obsessive need to do the right thing, and Swearengen will quietly control everyone’s destiny, proving to be one of the darkest characters in the history of television.
Deadwood is a town full of dreams; with gold being mined in the nearby hills everyone wants to get rich quick. It is also a town full of treachery and deceit, where one can be killed and fed to the hogs out back in the blink of an eye. Death is everywhere, and one is never quite sure of whom to trust, which gives the series an edge unlike anything else on the small tube.
The performances are simply superb, beginning with the great Ian McShane as Al Swearengen. This is a man who radiates danger, who is menacing just by his very presence. He can whither with a glare, and destroy with words. McShane is simply brilliant as Al, somehow making him likable to the viewers, he is the man we love to hate because we know he drives the show’ His acts of ruthlessness are shocking, and his language often horrifying, yet this is simply one of the most fascinating characters I have ever seen in television show. This is a man who can stick a knife in someone for no reason, yet when he takes the life of a preacher going through extraordinary suffering, he does so with such compassion and gentleness, we are shocked by the very act and the single tear he wipes away from his eye.
Timothy Olyphant offers the same sort of fascination. He left behind a cadTreer as a lawman to open a hardware store but simply cannot see injustices done. When Hickok is killed, it is Bullock who rides after his killer and brings him to justice, and it is Bullock who finally after refusing for so long pins the marshal’s badge on himself in the final episode telling Swearengen he will be the sheriff.
Robin Wiegert gives a daring performance as Calamity Jane, who became sort of a nurse to the town when the small pox epidemic struck. Coarse, tough and nasty, there is under all of this a genuine tenderness that shines through when she takes into her care a child whose family has been murdered, and when her beloved Wild Bill is killed. This, like, McShane is a major performance and richly deserving of the Emmy she did not win.
Oscar nominee Brad Dourif portrays the town’s doctor, a little man haunted by the memory of the Civil War and brothers fighting brothers, angered by the violence he sees in the town but powerless to do anything about it. Our own Molly Parker is Alma Garrett, wife of a murdered prospector who takes a shine to Bullock, and Paula Malcolmson is outstanding as Trixie, Al’s favourite whore.
In a performance of almost quiet majesty, Keith Carradine is wonderful as Wild Bill Hickok, giving us a, man who is tired of the legend he has become and just wants to be left alone to play cards. Hickok is known throughout the west, everyone respects him but there are still those who want to be the one to kill the great man and he is well aware of this. There is world weariness to Carradine’s performance that is spot on, a wonderful piece of acting. He comes to Deadwood to be a prospector, but is simply not built for manual labour, and ends up losing a great deal of money at cards. His final episode is haunting because we suspect he knows he is doomed, but were all gunfighters not? At some point, someone was going to come along who was faster, ending their life. His death in the fourth episode left a void for the next two, though the creators quickly found their bearings and moved on, but I confess I missed him when he was gone.
The collection comes with commentaries from the creator of the series as well as most of the cast and documentaries about the making of the series, the history of Deadwood, and a long discussion about the language (which is tough) used in the series.
Simply magnificent is Deadwood, and I anxiously awaited this collection to arrive to watch it again and again.