DEADWOOD - THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON
Region 2 (UK) Edition
Walter Hill, Davis Guggenheim, Alan Taylor, Ed Bianchi, etc.
Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Robin Weigert
Deadwood is about the formative
years of a legendary gold-rush frontier town: Deadwood, South
Dakota. It's a series with first class production values. It's beautifully-written, performed and shot. It features an array of terrific characters,
whose dialogue ranges from the profane to the profound, often vacillating
between the two at lightning speed.
The series is made by HBO, the
subscription channel that has done
so much to enrich and enliven American television in the last decade. They are not subject to
the tight censorship of the main network channels, and have used this
artistic freedom to create some outstanding television series, including The
Sopranos, Six Feet Under and The Wire.
It's July 1876, and Deadwood is
barely more than a ramshackle huddle of tents and makeshift buildings. It's a
lawless place, where a deal can be
sealed with a handshake, but you could have your throat cut for an
ill-advised word, and people would barely bat an eyelid. Few of the
prospectors have aspirations to earning their fortunes: they simply aim to
make enough money each day to fuel their nocturnal addictions, to alcohol and whores.
Both are in plentiful supply at the Gem Saloon.
Recent gritty big screen Westerns like Unforgiven
and Wyatt Earp have hinted at the rough-and-readiness of what
it really might have been like to live in that era, but Deadwood
has taken it to a new level. The series has drawn a great deal of comment
for it's earthly (but, we're assured, more-or-less authentic) language,
which takes a little getting used to. Eventually, even the most
foul-mouthed utterances seem to take on an almost Shakespearean rhythm.
Look beyond the strong language and the brutal violence and you'll also find a
rich vein of humour.
The series has a fine ensemble cast.
Timothy Olyphant is nominally the lead, as idealistic settler Seth
Bullock. He's ably supported by John Hawkes as his Austrian Jew business
partner, Sol Star.
The great Keith Carradine appears as gunslinger Wild
Bill Hickok, whose reputation makes him a target for every braggadocio
barfly. No-one except Hickok's
friend and travelling companion, Charlie Utter, realises that Hickok's
nerves are flaky. Utter is played by Dayton Callie, who has dozens of TV
credits and movies in his résumé, and a wonderful face that you'll not
forget in a hurry.
Robin Weigert plays the tough,
fiercely-loyal Calamity Jane (many of the series' characters are based on
real people). Banish thoughts of Doris Day from your mind, though: this Calamity
Jane is as strong and foul-mouthed as any of the men.
William Sanderson, who's possibly best
known as the android maker, J.F.Sebastian, in Ridley Scott's Blade
Runner, is E.B. Farnham, the seedy owner of the local
cockroach-infested hotel. Fine character actor Brad Dourif (Exorcist
III, and the voice of Chucky in the Child's Play series)
play's the town sawbones, Doc Cochran. Brit Ian McShane gives a mesmerising performance as Machiavellian saloon owner Al
Swearengen, a terrific role that's already landed him a Golden Globe
award. If there's a crooked deal being made, the chances are that
Al Swearengen has a part of it.
The Gem Saloon is the heart of Deadwood,
and home to many of the other fine characters in the show. The crippled
"gimp", Jewel, played by Geri Jewell, is the Saloon's cleaner, who, more
often than not, will be mopping up the blood of some unfortunate patron. Trixie
(Paula Malcomson) is the series' "tart with a heart", except that she's
closely tied to Al Swearengen, and knows all too well that he could snuff
her out without a second thought.
Let's see. Who else? Oh, there's Alma
Garret (indie fave Molly Parker), a classy woman brought to the town by
her foolish optimistic husband. She dulls her senses with
laudanum. Before long Swearengen has a new nemesis, in the shape of
Chicago riverboat gambler Cy Tolliver (a great career-resurrecting role
for Powers Boothe). Tolliver sets up a rival to the Gem Saloon, the
Bella Union. The Bella Union's a classier joint, but it's still a brothel, bar and casino. The
girls of the Bella Union are run by a Madame, Joannie Stubbs (Kim
Dickens), who has an uneasy alliance with Tolliver. Beetlejuice's
Jeffrey Jones plays the obsequious newspaper proprietor A.W. Merrick.
Expert magician Ricky Jay plays Tolliver's right hand man, card sharp
Eddie Sawyer. Swearengen's henchman, Dan Dority, is played by W. Earl
Brown, who recently appeared in The Alamo. That's more than a dozen
memorable characters, and there are many more.
If you haven't heard of the series, it's
probably because Sky One has been rather selfishly keeping it to itself.
They've already aired the first season, and have recently begun showing the
second (which has just finished in the US).
The series was created by David Milch. That
in itself should be all you need to know in order to convince you of its worth. Milch wrote several Emmy and Writer's Guild Award-winning episodes of
Hill Street Blues, before co-creating NYPD Blue, in 1992. More
awards followed, including two more Emmys. Milch later acted as Creative
Consultant on Stephen Bochco's excellent
and created another very successful cop show, Brooklyn South. The
first season of Deadwood received eleven Emmy nominations, winning one for Walter Hill's direction of the series' first episode.
Paramount's UK DVD release offers the
entire first season (twelve episodes, each about fifty minutes long),
spread across four discs.
The episodes are presented in 1.78:1
anamorphic widescreen format, with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (at 448kbps).
Each disc features three episodes, with an average bitrate of about
6.6Mb/s. The encoding seems to be very adaptive, rarely dipping below
5Mb/s, and often peaking above 9Mb/s.
The episodes look great, perfectly
capturing the show's chiaroscuro cinematography. It must have been a
difficult series to encode. Many scenes are (apparently) shot with
available light sources, so there are plenty of shadows. Where there's
light, it's often harsh, creating intense pools of light. The picture
often exhibits a touch
of edge-enhancement, but this shouldn't be too problematic in an ordinary
domestic viewing environment. Some scenes are a little grainy, but it
seems to well under control most of the time. The series certainly looks
better than it did when it was transmitted by Sky.
The 5.1 mix is not especially elaborate,
but it is well-used. There are plenty of directional effects, and even
some directional dialogue. There's not much music in the show, but when it
does appear, it's rich and has good dynamic range. The audio quality is
significantly better than the audio on Sky's transmissions (which are
compressed for broadcast).
The UK edition does not include the "Last
time on Deadwood..." recaps, which are present on the US edition.
There are a few time-and-location-establishing captions in the pilot
episode, (a.k.a. Deadwood), and these are presented burnt into the
picture (they're not player-generated).
THE BONUS MATERIAL
Unless you're one of those weird people who never
watches bonus material, you should avoid the UK edition. All of the bonus
material that's on the US version has been dropped for the UK edition. This set carries a
premium price point (its RRP is £49.99), so the omission is inexcusable.
The US set is presented on six discs, which
includes a whole disc of extras (including four very nice featurettes).
The US set also features commentary tracks on four episodes (by David
Milch on the pilot episode; stars Molly Parker and Keith Carradine on the pivotal Here Was A Man; stars Brad Dourif and
Robin Weigart on The Trial of Jack McCall; and stars Timothy
Olyphant and Ian McShane on series finale Sold Under Sin).
A wonderful series, with great scripts,
acting and characters. The DVD transfer is excellent, offering much better
picture quality than the broadcast version. Sadly, if you're in the UK,
all this is for nought: if you want the commentary tracks and featurettes,
you'll have to buy the Region 1 edition.