“Deadwood” is one of the shows that helped usher in the new age of great television.
Now it’s back. Sort of. And you should be thrilled.
You don’t always hear David Milch’s brilliant, profane take on the Western mentioned in the same breath as “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and that bunch. Maybe it’s because of the way it ended — unceremoniously dumped by HBO after three seasons, which meant no denouement, no climax, no real end. Or maybe it’s because fans of the show wanted to believe the rumors that it was coming back, at least as a movie, to tie up loose ends — rumors that persisted for more than a decade, with little evidence beyond wishful thinking that it would ever happen.
Finally, it has. “Deadwood” returns Friday, May 31 as a two-hour movie, wrapping up the series in a relatively low-key, yet satisfying, way. (Low key in this case includes the usual amount of profanity, which is considerable — and integral to the characters — and maybe just a little less violence than the show had during its run).
Here are four reasons you should watch “Deadwood: The Movie.” And one reason you shouldn’t.
1. It’s really, really good. Not great, maybe — certainly not as great as the best of the original. But still well worth the trouble. Whew. While there wasn’t a bad episode of the show during its original run, you never know with this kind of thing if it will live up to what went before it. It does. I suspect that it will be a lot more meaningful to people who loved the show than those who wonder what the fuss is over and jump in here, but why wouldn’t it be?
It’s set 10 years after the last season (“Deadwood” ran on HBO from 2004-2006), as the hard-living mining town of Deadwood celebrates South Dakota statehood. This sets the stage for murder, betrayal, bad business deals, a wedding, a funeral, a death that isn’t a murder (something of a rarity here) — you know, the usual for this show.
2. Almost everyone returns. That includes, of course, the great Ian McShane as Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon and brothel, willing to lie, cheat, steal and murder to get what he wants, and yet that isn’t even the most-notable thing about him. Al uses profanity as if it were some secret language known only to him — it’s heroic, practically. Also back: Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker), Trixie (Paula Malcomson), Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) and more. Real death robbed the reunion of the great Powers Booth and Ricky Jay; it would have been great to see what those two were up to 10 years later.
3. It’s the same, only different. Although the show lasted only three seasons and it’s been years since they played them, all the actors step right back into their roles with comfort and ease. We recognize them immediately, yet we also recognize that they have changed, some of the considerably. No one makes a big deal out of it. It’s simply accepted, as it should be. That’s a tricky business, but Milch and the actors carry it off. Deadwood could be a cold place, but there is a warmth to this, as there is with most reunions — it’s kind of nice to see even the people you don’t like. There are some surprises — Al’s story is probably the biggest. And at times it feels like Milch tries a little too hard to fit everyone in, to catch up with all of them. But it’s great to see them again.
4. This may be Milch’s swan song. Here’s the thing about Milch. People talk a lot about this or that person being a TV genius. Milch is a genius, period. A simple question asked of him often resulted in a 20-minute answer (the answer to a question about his failed series “John from Cincinnati” involved string theory). The dialogue in “Deadwood,” which is more important to the show and the movie than anything else, comes from him. It’s brilliant. He’s brilliant. But he is also suffering from dementia, as has been widely reported. Milch is a man who has played fast and loose with the gifts he’s been given, yet this diagnosis is unspeakably cruel. It’s impossible to know what more he will be able to accomplish. With groundbreaking scripts for “Hill Street Blues” and co-creating “NYPD Blue” under his belt, “Deadwood” could have been a footnote. Instead it’s maybe his best work. Enjoy the finale, because there won’t be anything like it again.
And one reason not to watch:
If you’re looking for cheap nostalgia. That’s not available here. Things do get a little warm and fuzzy for my taste toward the end, particularly with the way one character’s story is handled. But despite the advances in Deadwood — there’s a new telephone line, of all things, a development that confounds E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) — it’s still a brutal place. Even a reunion that could have gone one way goes another, which is kind of agonizing in the moment but more dramatically satisfying than it would have been otherwise. Of course Milch is necessarily looking back. But “Deadwood: The Movie” is simultaneously a move forward, and a fitting end.
‘Deadwood: The Movie’
Premieres 9 p.m. Friday, May 31.
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