‘Deadwood’ Breathes Life into The Western

Oct 25, 2004  •  Post A Comment

When “Deadwood” debuted March 25 on HBO, the show did more than improve ratings in one network’s time slot. It resuscitated an entire genre.

Despite many critics’ misgivings about the show’s heavy profanity, others lavished praise on its gritty sense of realism and clever use of language.

Shortly after its season finale, it nabbed 11 Emmy nominations-a huge rake for a freshman cable drama. It also scored the highest-ever average rating for a first-season HBO show, said Carolyn Strauss, executive VP, original programming.

“For us `Deadwood’s’ success is firing up on all cylinders,” Ms. Strauss said. “Creatively, it’s a big success. I think we have one of the foremost storytellers in America reinvigorating one of the greatest storytelling forms-the Western-and doing it in a totally original and thought-provoking way.”

But if creator and executive producer David Milch had his way, all his characters might be wearing togas.

“The themes that `Deadwood’ engages were originally generated by a show I proposed about city cops in Rome at the time of Nero-how a society which had order but no law governed itself,” Mr. Milch said.

HBO executives already had the upcoming “Rome” in development and suggested he try to take his idea to a different venue. “So I started reading about the West,” Mr. Milch said.

The result was a brutal and gripping drama set in the legal twilight zone of a South Dakota town in 1876. The first season tracked former lawman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) as he tried to establish a new life as a hardware store owner in Deadwood. The rampant lawlessness of the town-with saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) pulling the strings-wears down Bullock’s resolve until he reluctantly becomes Deadwood’s new sheriff.

Asked why the show has resonated, Mr. Milch said, “I give the viewer more credit, I think. If you give people a chance, they will come to respond to the imaginative reality of the world [of the show].”

The result has been a program that makes the Western-long a staple of television’s golden years-seem like a whole new frontier.