‘Deadwood’: THR’s 2004 Review

On March 21, 2004, HBO introduced audiences to the frontier outpost of Deadwood, where the Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane series ran for three seasons. Fifteen years after its premiere it was revived as a standalone movie on the premium cabler. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review of season one is below:

David Milch, executive producer of NYPD Blue and, before that, Hill Street Blues, has spent years looking at society from the perspective of those who enforce its laws and impose order. His new series, Deadwood, imagines a world without law, a world ruled only by the conscience of individuals, many of whom have none. The result is a Western unlike most others. It is brutal, passionate, heroic, tragic, blanketed by coarseness and always fascinating, though some times morbidly so.

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Although it would be just as solid a drama if it were cut from whole cloth, Deadwood is deeply rooted in historical reality. The 12-part series is set in a mining camp in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1876. For a short period of time, the camp, which never grew to more than 5,000 people, was on territory relegated to the Sioux Nation and officially outside the boundary of the United States.

Perhaps, in some Utopian dream, the collective will might have created an ideal state. In reality, this part of the West became wilder than most, averaging three murders every two days. Gambling, prostitution, alcohol and drugs flourished.

Milch, who wrote the premiere, fills Deadwood with many real-life characters — some legendary and some obscure — gleaned from a year of research. At the center of it is Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a sharpshooting, no-nonsense Montana marshal who resigns to establish a Deadwood hardware store along with his partner, Sol Star (John Hawkes), a Jew who has grown accustomed to anti-Semitic barbs. In the opener, Bullock makes friends with Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), and the two investigate the ambush killings of an immigrant family returning to Minnesota. Accompanying Hickok, by now a burned out shell of his former self, is bigtalking Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) and agent-guardian Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie).

Providing all the evil that one camp can handle is Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), the bullying, ruthless, sadistic owner of the town’s saloon, brothel and hotel. He and his henchmen form the closest thing to a Western Mafia and contribute substantially to Deadwood’s lofty mortality rate. The premiere lays the foundation for story lines that play out in the weeks to come, which might account for why it lacks the dramatic payoff of subsequent episodes. Nonetheless, there’s a lot here to chew on, along with many fine performances to relish, including particularly by Carradine and the incredibly evil McShane.

Production credits are out standing, combining the scenic wonder of the Dakota hills with the rough-and-tumble environment of this crude settlement. Praise also to director Walter Hill, who captures the emotional extremes of frontier life, bringing the story of Deadwood to life with a force and an intelligence That is most impressive. — Barry Garron, originally published on March 18, 2004.

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