Deadwood: no reason not to begin with this statement: David Milch’s series is superb. In fact, because Deadwood was not allowed the luxury of an ending during its run is the only reason it’s not considered the apex of television accomplishment, period. (Pending the upcoming Deadwood: The Movie, it may well swap places with the reigning champion, the brilliant The Wire.)
As the title of the series suggests, it is about the birth and development of a community; in that sense, the series is filled with political intrigue. The tactics may be cruder and more cutthroat (oftentimes literally), but this is not unlike seen elsewhere. Which is not to say that there’s not a lot of attention given to the individual characters’ journeys as well, but mostly the personal and political journeys are commingled. Even when they are not, those stories often sport thematic resonance. Considering where the third season ended, and what other parts of the story could be told, this show had plenty of gas still in the tank when it was canceled.
The series’ characters are well-defined, complex, rich creations, and their web of interactions is a joy to watch. The relationships are dynamic, organic, informed both by the macro and the micro. Also, there is a veritable parade of characters that comes and goes for a few episodes, and they generally either move the large picture forward or at the very least give further insight into what makes a major character tick.
And then, there is the dialogue. It’s often compared to Shakespearean dialogue, and the comparison is apt. The dialogue is highly stylized, each character with her/his own voice, with particular rhythm and vocabulary. But, more than the dialogue itself, some particular uses of it go back to what Shakespeare did: lots of monologues and characters (one, in particular, is used more often than most) commenting and introducing the action. The dialogue, simply put, is music, divinely played music.
All of that requires a cast in great shape, and this show certainly has it. While it is unfair to not mention pretty much everyone in the cast by name, as most are certainly deserving, it’s also necessary to mention just a few. Ian McShane’s performance is among the crème de la crème of television acting: his character is complex, and he masters both the dialogue and the subtle shifts in facial expression and posture, opening a window into his soul. Timothy Olyphant has a slightly simpler job, but he makes the best out of it too. Molly Parker shines as the character that has the wildest ride of all, with lots of convincing ups and downs. William Sanderson is brilliant as the slimy pathetically hateful, eternal sidekick to his betters. The list could go on and on and on.
Production design (by Maria Caso) and costume design (Janie Bryant) are top-notch, detailed and varied, giving each character and environment its own personality. The show very properly recognizes (in fact, embraces with gusto) that the time and place were such that filthy, tattered clothes were more realistic and proper than pristine ones, as a general rule. It is refreshing to see a show that is not too proud to muddy its characters as this one does. The series makes good use of music. Finally, the cinematographers, for the most part, give a masterclass on how to shoot a scene with low lights.
Read also: Deadwood (2019)