In an age of plunder and greed, the richest gold strike in American History draws a throng of restless misfits to an outlaw settlement where everything--and everyone--has a price. Welcome to Deadwood...a hell of a place to make your fortune.
Admittedly, I'm not much of a television watcher. Meaning, I don't really watch much of it. Something about committing more than a few hours to one particular storyline seems not only daunting, but requires more effort than I can seem to afford. However, to remove any suggestion that I may have a fear of commitment, I confess to enjoying a series when the word of mouth feels justified. For example, I love everything 'Lost.' Granted, I didn't discover the show until the fifth season, but once I watched the first episode I was hooked. (My latest addiction is 'True Blood.') For me, the program must offer something extraordinarily unique and surprisingly original to peak curiosity. Otherwise, what's the point of asking viewers to invest a great deal of their time.
With HBO's 'Deadwood,' this is exactly what attracted me. Strong word of mouth aroused my interest because many made it sound unusual and novel, a vastly different alternative to anything else on the boob tube. Much of this talk was, of course, related to the lack of censorship and graphic violence within the series due to it being on a paid cable station. With a pre-existing affinity for the American West, my curiosity intensified while already in the middle of the second season. But once I finally watched the first episode with historical figures like Wild Bill Hickok, Seth Bullock, Calamity Jane and Al Swearengen used as major characters, I wanted more. Set during the height of the Black Hills Gold Rush, I was not only enthusiastic, but I instantly became a devoted fan.
For the series opener, the first episodes commence with the three prominent names often associated with the town of Deadwood: Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), Hickok (Keith Carradine), and Swearengen (Ian McShane). The first two are on their way to the small mining camp in search of their fortunes while the latter is already settled there as the feared and powerful proprietor of the Gem Saloon. With Custer's Last Stand, aka Battle of Little Bighorn and part of the Black Hills War, still a recent memory, the booming settlement is less than a year old and not officially recognized as part of the United States. Because of this, the lawless and disorderly town is ripe with greed and corruption, a place governed and controlled by those who will fear and intimidation like it was second nature.
In this immoral place of sleaze and self-indulgence, tensions almost immediately grow when the murder of a family incites mob violence towards Native Americans. After rescuing the only survivor of the massacre, the former lawmen and gunslingers Hickok and Bullock soon become friends, which makes Swearengen nervous for some reason. When a new saloon offering gambling and run by the shrewd Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) suddenly shows up in town, the foul-mouthed cutthroat shows he doesn't much care for competition. As the first season continues and with the shocking death of a legend, hostilities between these men build and escalate. During these final years of the Reconstruction era, civilizations and towns were formed out of violence, greed and power.
Once word of possible annexation reaches the camp, prompting business owners to form a local government, the direction of the series becomes all too clear. With each episode and every scuffle — a day in the life of Deadwood before becoming part of the Dakota Territory — what we are watching is the inevitable encroachment of civil progress, a small mining camp slowly transforms into an organized township. The whole of the second season focuses mostly on this aspect of the storyline as faceless Yankton officials try to make their move to take over the settlement by sending Commissioner Jarry (Stephen Tobolowsky). While Cy attempts to somehow profit from this, Swearengen and Bullock are forced to set their differences aside and see the town grow the way they want it.
Making matters worse — and also introducing another thematic element into the series — is psychopath Francis Wolcott (Garret Dillahunt), who stirs up a frenzy with rumors of land claims being questioned. Turns out, the geologist is a representative of a man so powerful that his name alone brings fear and apprehension: George Hearst (Gerald McRaney). As we move into season three, 'Deadwood' becomes a series not only about the creation of a city, but also on the power struggle which works beneath the formation of a town. With the introduction of a theater troupe, led by the flamboyant Jack Langrishe (Brian Cox), the town shows promise at becoming a civilized town. But the tension between Bullock (the law), Swearengen (small business) and Hearst (corporate business) is undeniable, and their hostility threatens certain hopes in people.
In the episode "I Am Not the Fine Man You Take Me For" (Season 3, Episode 2), we see election campaigns being introduced into Deadwood. And as the candidates make their speeches, viewers spend more time listening to the conversation between Swearengen and Hearst instead of the other. The constant going back and forth (the conversation and the speeches) makes a very astute insinuation of how the political process and government truly function. Behind closed doors, civilization is built on the manipulation of politics and business, a place where greedy entrepreneurial bosses have the upper hand. Corruption tends to writhe underneath corporate capitalism — the laissez-faire of the free market system — that's intent on usurping individual freedoms and small business.
Unfortunately, this is how the series ends, and fans are left to imagine where the show would have gone to next in the fourth season. The sudden cancellation was a bit of a shock to say the least, and the intense build up of the last episodes have left devoted followers deeply hurt and disappointed. For years, we've been promised two follow-up films so as to bring the entire storyline to a satisfying conclusion. But over four years later since the last episode aired, it doesn't look like this will ever happen, especially when Ian McShane himself reported in an interview that the original set has been destroyed. The reasons behind its unexpected demise are unclear, but one can easily guess cost and ratings to be a contributing factor. Interest in the American West isn't as high as it once was.
Based on true historical events and people, 'Deadwood' was — and still is — a marvelous show with an intriguing and greatly fascinating look of a unique period in American history. Granted, series creators and writers took copious amounts of liberties with the facts, but it was all done for some wonderfully impressive and engaging drama. For example, the idea that Bullock and Hickok were friends is highly doubtful since the legendary gunfighter was murdered on the second day of Bullock's arrival in Deadwood. Nonetheless, the idea is powerfully effective for intensifying the hostility between Bullock and Swearengen, which really did happen. Much of the series relies on this careful balance of mixing fact with fiction, of providing a historical account with a highly entertaining bent. And it does so in immensely compelling and riveting fashion.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Deadwood: The Complete Series' comes to Blu-ray courtesy of HBO Home Video. The sturdy 13-disc box set comes with an attractive and textured cardboard slipcover that's made to look aged and rough with a small portrait window showing the main cast of characters.
Inside, we find the Region A locked, BD50 discs housed within the pages of a 16-page hardcover book, similar to that seen in the 'Rome and 'Alien Anthology' release. Each page features beautiful, glossy pictures of the cast, various scenes from the series, and several smaller pics of the actual town and the people of Deadwood. It's a striking and lovely package to say the least, but I imagine some won't care too much for slipping the discs in between pages.
At startup, the first disc is the only one to start with a promotional preview of HBO programs. Then viewers are greeted with the usual selection of menu options while full motion clips play in the background.
'Deadwood' arrives with an excellent and often gorgeous 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.78:1) that sometimes reaches reference quality. The picture is razor-sharp and revealing for a majority of the show, except for a very few instances of poor resolution. Architectural details are distinct and well-defined where viewers can clearly see every line and grain on exposed wood and wallpaper. The stitching, texture and intricate designs of post-Civil War clothing are remarkable and precise. Facial complexions appear healthy and stunning, exposing every wrinkle, pore and defect on the faces of actors, while individual hairs are plainly and discretely discernible.
Filmed with a deliberate look which imitates a classic and antiquated appearance, the transfer displays a beautiful and cinematic palette. The intentional photography is saturated in golden browns and sepia tones. While primary colors are vivid and boldly rendered, the video places greater emphasis on secondary hues. With a push on yellow and orange, nighttime sequences lit by natural firelight are bathed with a rich warmth and pleasant glow. The one drawback is some oppressive, murky shadows which obscure and hide background info so as to keep a sense of authenticity and realism.
Contrast is comfortably bright and pitch-perfect, giving daylight scene terrific pop and clarity. The smallest details in the distance are exposed and made clearly visible. Black levels are inky and deeply profound, providing the image with nice depth and dimensionality. Occasionally, some sequences tend to be a tad oversaturated and suffer considerable crush. But much of this could be a result of the cinematography. There are also moments of slight banding, which may or may not distract the most discernible viewer. Aside from that, 'Deadwood: The Complete Series' makes camp on Blu-ray with a splendid and striking video presentation.
The popular HBO series comes with an equally attractive DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Being a TV program, episodes are understandably front-heavy with little activity in the surrounds. Then again, there are a few good moments of atmospherics, creating an enjoyable and convincing soundfield. For example, the echoes of Bullock's and Swearengen's demanding voices ring and spread into the background during indoor confrontations. Birds and crickets can be heard in the distance for a persuasive and satisfying ambiance. It's not an overwhelmingly immersive experience, but it does provide the design with a great sense of space.
Imaging is quite welcoming and spacious with a majority of the action balanced beautifully in the soundstage. Mid-range is expansive with crystal-clear clarity, exhibiting excellent warmth and fidelity across the three channels. Low-frequency effects are not impressive or all that powerful, but bass is present throughout to give certain scenes some weight. Dialogue reproduction is well-prioritized and precise, allowing for every word and syllable to be plainly heard and moving the drama forward. The music also fills the entire front soundscape and lightly bleeds into the back with splendid depth and presence. In the end, the show about the legendary western town sounds terrific on Blu-ray.
For this Blu-ray edition of 'Deadwood: The Complete Series,' HBO Home Video ports over the same collection of supplemental material spanning all 13 discs. They come with at least one audio commentary, and each season is followed by a fourth disc containing special features.
Disc Four: Season One
Disc Eight: Season Two
Disc Twelve: Season Three
Disc Thirteen: Bonus Disc
'Deadwood' is the beloved, short-lived TV show about the small mining town in South Dakota soon after Custer's Last Stand. The series commences when the area was ripe with greed, lawlessness, and violence, and examines how it slowly transforms into the civilized city but never truly foregoes corruption and corporate greed. With such great characters as Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock in the lead, the show was marvelous and dramatically riveting. It's a real shame it was cancelled so soon, but HBO gives it new life on home video. The Blu-ray edition arrives with an attractive package, beautiful picture quality and a terrific audio presentation. The bonus features are the same as the DVD release, but the material is incredibly extensive and exhaustive, sure to keep fans busy for many hours during the holiday break. Fans will continue to lament the show's early demise — I know I will — but this package will suffice and worth the purchase. For everyone else, 'Deadwood: The Complete Series' is highly recommended.