Spoilers, I guess, if that matters to you.
There were a lot of reasons to watch Deadwood when it started. HBO's track record certainly makes any of their new series worth a bit of attention. They aren't perfect ... in fact, the other two highly-touted new HBO series this season left me cold. I couldn't get through the first episode of the needlessly obscure Carnivale, and while I did actually watch more than one episode of K Street, I didn't like what I saw and soon abandoned it. But HBO is allowed a few missteps. Beyond that, there was the name David Milch, one of the guiding lights behind the origins of NYPD Blue, who was the creator of Deadwood, there were the good advance reviews ... plenty of reason to tune in at least once.
And it's funny, because after one episode, pretty much all anyone could talk about was how often everyone on the show said the word "cocksucker." The ads HBO ran in the weeks leading up to the debut featured plenty of "fucks," so it's not like we weren't prepared, but WOW, did they cuss a lot. Here is what I said after that first episode:
Keith Carradine has an odd charisma as Wild Bill, and Deadwood the place looks suitably dirty. As one critic said, this is what America looks like without government, and it's not a v.pretty picture of unbridled emergent capitalism. I'm there for episode 2. (And yes, there is an ENORMOUS amount of cussing, not just variants of "fuck" but also hella "cocksuckers." I understand the reviews now ... there's so much cussing, you can't not talk about it.)Well, the cussing never left, the capitalism continued to emerge, perhaps slightly less unbridled as the weeks passed, but always dirty. Meanwhile, it's good that Keith Carradine made such a solid first impression, because he didn't get much more than that: he was dead a few episodes in. You'd think the loss of the guy with the famous name would hurt the show, but by the time Wild Bill Hickok got murdered, we'd gotten to know a lot more Deadwood characters, and what a motley crew they are.
This is probably the area where Deadwood shines most brightly. There are more fascinating regular and semi-regular characters on this show than on any other series that comes to mind. Joining Hickok in the "famous name" category was Robin Weigert as Calamity Jane, who proved her worth according to the coin of this particular realm (she was the best and most frequent cusser) ... of course, she left town about 2/3 of the way through the season, but as with Wild Bill, she was missed but there were plenty of others to take her place in our hearts. All of the characters surprised us with the complexity of their past and present, not by stepping out of character for simple shock value, but by growing before our eyes as we learned more about them over the course of the season. Like all of the best series, the good guys weren't as good as they seemed and the bad guys weren't as bad as they seemed. The closest thing to a traditional hero, Timothy Olyphant's hunky Seth Bullock, had one king-hell of a vicious temper, beating one man to death with his bare hands and coming close with a second. In the oddball psychology that exists in Deadwood (the town and the show), this could only mean one thing: as Season One faded away, Bullock became the town sheriff. But not before he finally had sex with the Widow Garret, played brilliantly by Molly Parker. When we first met Alma Garret, she was an upper-class woman accompanying her husband on his gold-rush fantasy ... she clearly had secrets, which we soon discovered revolved around her laudanum addiction. After her husband died, she kicked the junk and adopted a little girl, fooling us into thinking she was on the angel side of the angel/whore equation. Except she wasn't born rich, she married into it, her husband's gold claim made her probably the richest person in Deadwood, she had mysterious problems of a likely incestuous nature with her sick fuck of a father ... amazingly, by the end of Season One, this seemingly fragile junky was a real player in the Deadwood world.
Then there was the town Doc, played by Brad Dourif, who was the Camusian existentialist of the show, and the crippled Jewel (played by Geri Jewell, an actress with cerebral palsy), who emerged in the last couple of episodes as one of the funniest characters in the show ... Jewel and the Doc ended the season with the most touching moment of the entire series, perhaps the ONLY touching moment in the series thus far, and it was well-earned.
I haven't even mentioned Powers Boothe or William Sanderson (depending on your preference for movies or teevee, he's either the nerd in Blade Runner or Larry from Newhart), or Trixie the whore whose heart isn't exactly gold but close enough, and then there's the preacher who has some brain disease but he won't let the Doc cure him because he thinks God is trying to tell him something. (Yeah, God's kinda hanging out around the edges of this show.) And Wu, the Chinese butcher who seems to know only one word of English ... being that this is Deadwood, that word is, of course, "cocksucker."
And at this point, it's time to talk about the best thing of all about Deadwood: a truly remarkable character, the aptly named Al Swearengen, who among other things is the show's primary exponent of the proper use of the c-word ("proper use" being "whenever Al opens his mouth and talks"). Ian McShane, who plays Al, has a great time with this character, who rivals James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano as the best teevee series character around today. At first glance, and in fact at the first several glances, Al Swearengen is a vile, murdering cocksucker (you knew I had to say it) who is the embodiment of every bad thing ever said or thought about Emergent Capitalists. He'll sell you booze, he'll sell you whores, he'll fuck you over and kill you if you don't say thanks, he built Deadwood and he runs it as if he were god ... of course, he's not God, but in one of the most startlingly perfect revelations in a season full of them, in the season finale, Al was clearly cast as God's manservant. The Reverend's mind and body are almost completely gone, yet the man of the cloth lives on in a torment both physical and spiritual. The Doc breaks down and prays to God to please end the Reverend's life ... and the Doc's prayer is a doozy, full of spite and hate for what God hath wrought upon the earth ... at which point, we cut to Al Swearengen performing a mercy-killing on the Rev, after which he whispers "you can go now, brother," and damned if the evil cocksucker (and he's still evil and he's still a cocksucker) isn't just about as complicated as a character can get ... seriously, he makes Tony Soprano look simple in comparison.
All of Al could be summed up in the Emmy-worthy scene that closed last week's penultimate episode, what will be long remembered as the Blow Job Soliloquy. where Al started babbling about life and his mom and the world and he had one of his whores with him and he had her give him a blow job while he continued to babble, exposing himself not just literally but figuratively, and Ian McShane went with it and there hasn't been anything like that scene on teevee or anywhere else for a really long time, weird like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet but something more than that, it's one of those "you have to see it" moments, beyond my capacity to describe it.
So, where are we at with this thing? It's clearly the best new show of the season. I suppose I prefer The Wire overall, but you could make a case for Deadwood as the best show on television today. It doesn't have the pop-cult buzz of Sopranos, and Sopranos remains a brilliant show, and the water-cooler aspect of Sopranos matters, it's part of what makes it great. Let's put it this way: if you said The Wire was the best show on television, you wouldn't get an argument from me. If you said the same thing about The Sopranos, I'd have to nod my head and admit I knew where you were coming from. And if you wanted to put Deadwood at the top of the list, well, you might be right, you cocksucker. I don't suppose I have to point out that those three shows, the best series on teevee today, are all on HBO.
So, with only a couple more series to go, here are my grades for series that have finished their seasons. Plenty of shows I don't watch, of course, some I'm a few seasons behind so they're not included, and I'm trying to stick to series, so The Daily Show doesn't appear on this list, but it gets an easy "A" if I was grading it. I've finally remembered to stick Sex and the City on the list. Note that these are grades for the most recent season of these shows:
The Wire: A+Finally, I should mention that Deadwood looks better in high-definition, to my eye, than any other HBO show. I think Showtime tends to look a little better than HBO in general in this regard, but Deadwood is gorgeous in high-def ... or not, when it's supposed to look filthy, but you get my drift.
The Sopranos: A
Joan of Arcadia: B+
Dead Like Me: B
Sex and the City: B
Curb Your Enthusiasm: B-
NYPD Blue: B-
L Word: B-/C+
Honorable mention: Karen Sisco and Wonderfalls.