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‘Deadwood’ deserves look 10 years later

By From page B1 | May 02, 2014

Ten years ago, a show aired on HBO that many overlooked.

It dealt with the complexities of the law, power struggles, race and how a society is built.

Blu-ray and DVD sales have raised its profile, but it was canceled before it could reach the ending it deserved.

Though many may think of “The Wire,” which aptly meets all these requirements, this series in question, instead, is “Deadwood.”

While Baltimore-based crime drama “The Wire” has enjoyed a second life with the cult recommendation as the greatest drama in television history, “Deadwood” is as unfairly overlooked 10 years after its premiere season debuted as it was when it first aired.

“Deadwood” commented, too, on social, political, racial and personal struggles, set months after Custer’s last stand.

The town marches from lawless, unincorporated – read: Native American – territory to being swallowed into the American political machine during the course of the series, which plays out in 1876 and 1877. By weaving together the factual and fictional, famous figures such as George Hearst, “Wild Bill” Hickok and Wyatt Earp appear alongside memorable imaginary counterparts such as Alma Garret, Francis Wolcott and Mr. Wu.

“Deadwood,” which first aired in March 2004, rode into town and broke the mold for westerns. It dismantled the fables about heroic, morally superior outlaws, throwing shade on Ian McShane’s Emmy-nominated Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon and the show’s wiliest reprobate. Though among the town’s most clever, Swearengen’s saloon doubles as a legitimate business for an enterprise that also traffics in everything from opiates to murder.

Yet he managed to be likable, too, a principle part of organizing the town’s government as well as looking out for Garret when Hearst’s mining operation escalated his interest in her claim to more violent forms of persuasion.

Nonetheless, the final scene of the series is him scrubbing blood off the floor of his office, lamenting that one of his saloon employees – perhaps like fans of the show itself – “wants me to tell him something pretty.”

Because of low ratings and high costs, HBO decided to close shop on the exquisite drama in 2006 after three seasons. There was talk of doing a pair of two-hour movies to tie up the series and though we’re in an era where shows enjoy heretofore unprecedented renaissances (“Family Guy,” “Arrested Development,” “Futurama,” “24”), the more time wears on, the less likely it seems possible.

This is a shame because the show left a number of threads hanging. The third and final season introduced pieces series creator David Milch planned to pay off in season four, such as the deep investment in a newly arrived theater troupe. In the form we’re left, it can be chalked up to a description of the show’s ever-expanding universe, a way to show the march toward civilization.

What makes the show a joy to catch for the first time or revisit after all these years is its complex characters as well as its dense prose, lavish costumes and that indescribable French term mise en scène, which speaks to the sum of the elements put on the screen. In much the same way Baltimore was a principle character in “The Wire,” so, too, was the South Dakota town of Deadwood in its show.

It also features actors who later went on to acclaim in other work, such as John Hawkes, who earned an Oscar nomination as leathery, unsettling meth addict Teardrop Dolly in “Winter’s Bone,” Timothy Olyphant, who’s played lead role Raylan Givens for five seasons on FX’s “Justified,” and Anna Gunn, who played Skyler White on “Breaking Bad,” among others.

But like any good show, it needs to be viewed to be fully appreciated.

On a network that housed heavyweights such as “The Wire” and “The Sopranos,” “Deadwood” may have been easy to overlook, but it’s held up as well as any other show since the turn of the millennium.

To read more of Nick DeCicco’s blogs, visit http://dailyrepublic.typepad.com/forthoseabouttorock. Follow him on Twitter @ndeciccodr.

Nick DeCicco

Nick DeCicco

Nick DeCicco is the editor of the Tailwind and writes the pop culture blog/column For Those About to Rock. Before joining the DR staff in July 2007, DeCicco (pronounced Deh-CEE-Coh) worked at The Union in Grass Valley, Calif., and the Greeley Tribune in Greeley, Colo. A 2004 graduate of the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, DeCicco spends his free time attending concerts, listening to music, going to movies, traveling and hiking.

Discussion | 3 comments

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  • Notta Prude, But....May 02, 2014 - 6:45 am

    Great show but I believe viewers should be advised that there has never been anything on the screen with as many "F" bombs. Don't know why they believed it necessary for every other word to be F........

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  • Bob LivesayMay 02, 2014 - 7:04 am

    You are correct about the Wire. It had many folks from "Homicide Life on the Streets" also centered in Baltimore. I appeared in both on and off . I was in most of the last season of the Wire. A glorified so called featured extra. It was fun and very well done and a very friendly atmosphere on the set. By the way I love Deadwood.

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  • Yes!!May 02, 2014 - 8:03 am

    I hadn't heard of Deadwood until a couple years ago, and finally got around to watching the show in its entirety. Strangely, I grew such a deep connection with the characters and storyline, and was heartbroken when I reached the final episode. Now, when I see the actors on other television shows—such as Sons of Anarchy, though there’ve been many others—I annoy the people around me by crying out: “I miss Deadwood!!!!” Firefly is yet another show that was wrongfully overlooked.

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