John Wayne would have hated “Deadwood.”
Since Wayne referred to the 1952 Western “High Noon” as “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life” because of its depiction of frontier townspeople as cowardly, it’s reasonable to assume that the conservative cowboy actor would have despised David Milch’s HBO series.
Set in a Dakota Territory mining town in the mid-1870s, “Deadwood” broke new ground in its realistic portrayal of a society rife with lawlessness and violence, alcoholism, prejudice against Indians, Chinese, Jews and African Americans, prostitution that more closely resembled sexual slavery than any “victimless crime,” and unrestrained, cutthroat capitalism. Watching the compelling “Deadwood” immerses viewers in an uncompromising, but fascinating, world of filth, oppression and, to some degree, hope.
In “Deadwood,” the frontier, which reflected the American Dream of expanding prosperity and territory, at times seems like the American Nightmare.
Although the series’ plot lines were only loosely based on the historical record, Milch populated his town with both real characters from the past - both nationally famous figures like Wild Bill Hickok (played by Keith Carradine) and mining magnate George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) as well as local legends such as saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) and hardware store owner/lawman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) - as well as fictional characters.
To this Milch added some of the most profane and scatological dialogue ever heard on television. Although some have disputed the historical accuracy of the abundant profanity found in “Deadwood,” Milch has said that “Language, both obscene and complicated, was one of the few resources of society that was available to these people. It’s very well documented that the obscenity of the West was striking, but the obscenity of mining camps was unbelievable.”
“Deadwood’s” three 12-episode seasons, which aired from March 2004 through August 2006, are collected in a handsome box set released this week by HBO Home Entertainment (19 discs, $179.97, rated TV-MA). Set during 1876 and 1877, the time of the Great Sioux War, “Deadwood” chronicles the economic, political, social and cultural development of this frontier community.
But in addition to packaging every episode from this trailblazing TV program and including bonus features on the actual town of Deadwood and its history, “Deadwood: The Complete Series” attempts to deal, in a somewhat roundabout way, with the issues that have seriously vexed fans of the series.
Specifically, in a long rambling monologue entitled “The Meaning of Endings,” Milch explains, somewhat, what would have occurred to “Deadwood’s” main characters and the town itself if HBO had not “abruptly terminated” the series.
The camera follows Milch as he strolls through the abandoned streets and sets of “Deadwood,” talking about such things as a fire and subsequent flood that destroyed most of the town in the late 1870s; where he planned to take characters like Swearengen and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), and what would have become of the illicit romance between Bullock and Alma Garrett (Molly Parker). He also mentions his plans to introduce such new characters as John D. Rockefeller’s father, a “medicine man” who sold fraudulent health potions.
As he walks, Milch points out town landmarks, which can be seen in greater detail in another DVD bonus feature, “Deadwood 360 Tour.” And his comments are interspersed with scenes from the series to illustrate his points.
During his monologue, Milch admits that talking about his late series is “infinitely depressing.” He describes the cancellation of “Deadwood” as “quite a wrench” and “unexpected.”
Shortly after the network cancellation, Milch and HBO reached an agreement for Milch to carry the story forward with two two-hour movies. But that was more than two years ago, and “Deadwood” cast members have gone on to other roles in TV and movies. And Milch has subsequently made the short-lived HBO series “John From Cincinnati” and is reportedly working on another HBO series about New York cops in the 1970s. (Earlier in his career, Milch was a writer for “Hill Street Blues” and co-creator of “NYPD Blue.”)
Still, in his monologue - recorded at an unspecified time, but presumably this year - Milch says, “We continue to embrace the hope that we may do some movies.” But his demeanor suggests he doesn’t really believe this will happen. And his comments were probably made before this past July, when HBO co-president Richard Pepler told TV critics, “I think it’s safe to report that the likelihood of a ‘Deadwood’ movie happening is slim to none.”
At other times Milch seems to recognize that “Deadwood” is dead: “I would urge upon the audience not to waste time looking to be told something pretty about what’s to come. ... I hope you will enjoy what has been. I sure did.”
And for those who appreciated “Deadwood’s” adventurous, daring and profane take on the American West, “Deadwood: The Complete Series” should allay some of those hurt feelings.