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HBO presents
Deadwood: The Complete First Season (2004)

"No law at all in Deadwood, is that true?"
- unknown criminal

Review By: Matt Peterson  
Published: February 11, 2005

Stars: Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, Keith Carradine, Brad Dourif, Molly Parker
Other Stars: Jim Beaver, John Hawkes, Paula Malcomson, Leon Rippy, William Sanderson, Robin Weigert, W.Earl Brown, Dayton Callie, Timothy Omundson
Director: various

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (strong language, violence, sexuality)
Run Time: 12h:00m:00s
Release Date: February 08, 2005
UPC: 026359243028
Genre: television

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

After frequent bloodshed and rampant betrayal, tensions between Native Americans and the expanding settlers reached a head at Little Big Horn in 1876, with the defeat of Custer and his cavalry. Some two years prior, Custer's forces heralded the discovery of gold in the Black Hills area of South Dakota, leading to the last major gold rush. The West had been all but stripped of its lucrative mineral, linked to Eastern civilization via the safe passage of the Oregon Trail, beyond which lay the gulf of Indian territory. Among this lawless frontier, devoid of the pesky laws and lawmen of the States, lies the hulk of Deadwood—a small mining settlement propped up in the greedy tradition of other shanty-filled row towns, filled with plenty of booze, crime, sex, and maybe a life of unimaginable wealth; a hell of a place to make your fortune.

It is two weeks after Custer's defeat. Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and his partner in business Sol Star (John Hawkes) want to make a new life in the gutters of Deadwood. Formerly a Montana lawman, Bullock is ready to see those days of violence depart, substituting selling hardware for executing justice. Other characters arrive in turn, including legendary gunman Wild Bill Hickok (David Carradine), friend Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), and his lippy sidekick Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert). Brom Garret (Timothy Omundson) and his opium-addicted wife Alma (Molly Parker) are two New Yorkers who are certainly out of their element, but are willing to endure the slop and sin to get their gold mine.

One man oversees it all. The unofficial ruler of the depths of Deadwood, Gem Saloon owner Al Swearengen (the brilliant Ian McShane) sells liquor, women, faro, and anything else he can to make a buck. He is a bitter, intelligent, ruthless and crass man who conducts business with an odd mixture of hospitality and brutality; one has no idea if Swearengen will cater to your needs, or send you to the scientifically curious Doc Amos Cochran (Brad Dourif) with a knife to the gut. This is a town full of culture, texture, and colorful characters, brimming with the kind of teeming life that is a testament to the vitality of humanity, and its dark, seedy underbelly. Over time, a unique community is forged from a base materialistic quest, one that is never free from the vices that follow.

David Milch's Deadwood has familiar elements, taking a page from the gritty realism of such recent westerns as Open Range and the brilliant Unforgiven, but this certainly remains distinct, and would be more appropriately described as a "midwestern." This is a richly researched, detailed world, full of the darkness and dirt that one comes to expect from such a period and place. The production design and cinematography layer this world in a dreary palette of earth tones, depriving it of what little joy such an environment seems to offer. This is simply a joy to watch, however, painting an epic, slowly unfolding saga firmly in the tradition of other great HBO original series.

Performances are first rate here, led by the subtle complexity of Ian McShane's Swearengen. Timothy Olyphant's retired lawman doesn't stay out of the justice game for long, teaming up with the subdued, yet very human Hickok in the opener, Deadwood, which begins a four-episode arc. Carradine is a natural for the role of the infamous gunslinger, exuding a sense of danger, ability and honor rolled into one crazy hairdo. Other notables include the wonderfully eccentric Brad Dourif as Doc, William Sanderson as hotel owner E.B. Farnum and Robin Weigert's chomping Jane. Other characters that crop up throughout the run fill the bill with great style and ease.

Much has been said of the show's frequent cursing, which runs rampant throughout most scenes. This can certainly be off-putting to some (including me initially), but the actors turn this odd pairing of mannered dialogue and crass expletives into a kind of Deadwood dialect akin to the verbal somersaults of Mamet. This is probably how these people talked, so if you want accuracy, you'll get plenty throughout these well-written yarns.

Deadwood is a series that requires some patience to appreciate. Deliberately paced and occasionally downright slow, this show needs time to develop, but becomes all engrossing once it does. At first, I was not convinced this would be anything extraordinarily above other westerns of recent times, but Deadwood's rich characterization, writing and period accuracy sets this apart. It's a special, unforgiving place.

Disc 1: Deadwood, Deep Water
Disc 2: Reconnoitering the Rim, Here Was a Man
Disc 3: The Trial of Jack McCall, Plague, Bullock Returns to the Camp
Disc 4: Suffer the Little Children, No Other Sons or Daughters, Mister Wu
Disc 5: Jewel's Boot Is Made for Walking, Sold Under Sin
Disc 6: Special Features

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: HBO's anamorphic 1.78:1 transfers are excellent. Detail is good, though some shadows can look a bit muddy. The color palette is quite limited here, so don't expect vivid images, but the earthy tones, filled with browns, blacks and the hues of firelight, come through nicely.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Spanish, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby 5.1 track is not very active, directing most audio to the front soundstage. Surrounds come alive every now and then, and occasionally provide ambient fill, but I didn't notice much activity. These are fine, clear mixes that serve the material, but do not astound. A Dolby Surround mix is also included.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 72 cues
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
3 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
4 Feature/Episode commentaries by David Milch on Deadwood; Molly Parker and Keith Carradine on Here Was a Man; Brad Dourif and Robin Weigert on The Trial of Jack McCall; Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane on Sold Under Sin
Packaging: Book Gatefold
Picture Disc
6 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Episode previews/recaps
Extras Review: The six discs are housed in a flimsy, well decorated digipak. This fits into an outer, book like case that has a faux leather exterior, and is quite oversized for my taste. I found this package to be attractive, but not very practical or durable.

Commentaries include David Milch on Deadwood, Molly Parker (Alma Garrett) and Keith Carradine (Hickok) on Here Was a Man, Brad Dourif (Doc) and Robin Weigert (Jane) on The Trial of Jack McCall, and Timothy Olyphant (Bullock) and Ian McShane (Swearengen) on Sold Under Sin. These are decent commentaries with their share of humorous anecdotes and informative bits.

Disc 6 contains the rest of the bonus material, which consists of four featurettes. Making Deadwood: The Show Behind the Show (13m:30s) is a standard making of featurette with the cast and crew; The Real Deadwood (25m:26s) is a fine look at the real town of Deadwood and its history; next is a conversation between David Milch and Keith Carradine (who interviews), broken up into two parts: The New Language of the Old West (29m:46s) takes a look at the show's, origin, its unique environment, dialogue and Milch's knowledge of Deadwood history, and An Imaginative Reality (27m:48s) discusses the blending of fact and fiction in the characters of Deadwood. All of these quality featurettes are presented in anamorphic widescreen, except for the first EPK piece.

Each episode has a preview trailer, and a recap of the previous episode.

These are some excellent, substantive extras.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

HBO's Deadwood is a layered, richly detailed world full of character. The darkness and dirt are palpable, thrusting the viewer into the untamed world of the American frontier. It starts out quite slow, but becomes engrossing. HBO's presentation is golden.


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