For the first half of the pilot, the show seemed like a fucking parody of what I thought the show was like. Lots of people in silly hair cursing up a storm. I had to get used to the look and style of everything before I could like it. And the look of the show is one of its major fucking strengths: you really feel like you've been transported back to the late 19th century. It's a very immersive experience; the production value is pretty amazing.
Deadwood is about Deadwood, South Dakota, a real place with real people. Surprisingly, the majority of the characters are actually fucking based on these real people. I knew the more famous ones like Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane, but even Al fucking Swearengen was a real guy back in the day. Of course, I don't know the extent of the liberties taken with the real lives and personalities of these people, but it changes your outlook on the text when you realize it's even more historical fiction than you think. What I eventually realized, though, is that the series is actually about Deadwood. Deadwood the community, the camp, the emerging town. It tracks the way Deadwood evolves and how the citizens of Deadwood have to adapt to going from a lawless camp to a real fucking town that's part of the United States of fucking America.
And who are these citizens? The character everyone talks about is Al Swearengen, who runs the Gem Saloon and, essentially, the whole town, in a way. For the first several episodes, I couldn't get into him because I saw him as a bad, bad man. But then they introduced Cy Tolliver, who was like Al Swearengen but less likable, and I started to really like Al. Because I found it fascinating that every decision he makes is based on his own self-interest. It was a marvel to see what he would (and would not) do and how he justified his actions (or lack thereof). The other thing about Al is that he—shockingly—wasn't as bad as I thought. He's definitely a disagreeable fuck, and he'll orchestrate murders like he's playing fucking Snakes and Ladders, but he also scrubs the blood out of the floor himself, and I find that very telling. I also loved his right-hand man, Dan Dority, who's like a big murderous teddy bear. Doc Cochran is the only doctor in town, which can be very harrowing, especially because he has to put his personal feelings aside to do his job; his concern for his patients, whoever they are, is admirable. Seth Bullock is the former sheriff from Montana come to Deadwood to start a hardware store with Sol Star; I clung to them early on since they were two of the few decent, moral characters. And then there's E.B. Farnum, who runs a hotel. I love E.B. a lot because he is the living embodiment of the word obsequious. Nearly everything he says or has said to him is completely fucking hilarious, either unintentionally (if he's speaking) or intentionally (if someone is giving him a smackdown). He's such a fucking weasel. I also enjoyed A.W. Merrick, newspaperman, and Ellsworth, the amiable prospector. Of course, let's not forget Mr. Wu, whose English is limited to about three words: "Swergin," "cocksucker," and, later, "San Francisco." Any scene with Wu and Swergin is gold.
It's a very manly show, Deadwood. My favorite female characters are two whores and a gimp. Trixie, one of Al's whores, is hard to figure out, but she's fierce and independent. Joanie, one of Cy's whores, is just so damn decent, very different from Trixie, and I always rooted for her to go on to bigger and better things, getting out from under the thumb of that cocksucker Cy Tolliver. And Jewel is seriously the most adorable and hilarious gimp ever; she cracks wise to Al fucking Swearengen, of all people. I didn't care much for Alma Garret, the main female character, because, weirdly enough, she struck me as too proper for the show. In addition, she didn't seem to have much agency at all, but that changed in later seasons, which made me like her a little more. And I couldn't stand Jane most of the time because of the way she spoke, constantly slurring her words (since she was a drunk) and feigning toughness, never really selling her profanity. Also, her character didn't seem to be important at all, ever. Again, like with Alma, I tended to like her more in the third season, especially because the fact that she didn't give a fuck what anyone thought of her was kind of cool. Interestingly enough, however, I noticed that there seemed to be a great many female writers on the writing staff.
The town of Deadwood feels real and alive, populated with a great deal of major and minor characters. One thing I love about the show is the complicated relationships between all the characters. Characters' motivations—when they aren't simply gold, sex, or booze—are often unclear, and their words sometimes contradict their actions. Characters don't like other characters for unexplained reasons. But then, people who didn't necessarily get along with have to make tactical decisions for the good of the community. And that was the awesome part of the show, watching this little microcosm of society form its own little microcosm, a group of men who got together and figured out what the fuck needed to be done, always over canned peaches. I got a kick out of the canned peaches.
The major selling point of the show is the dialogue. Every fucking review you read, it's "Deadwood makes profanity sound like Shakespeare." What the fuck does that even fucking mean? I'd also heard that it was a show you could just listen to and enjoy, the language was that beautiful. And in this respect, the show lived up to the hype. Jesus, the fucking language on this show! It really does have the sort of natural ebb and flow of blank verse, and it's quite fucking appropriate for this show because no one ever fucking gets to the fucking point! They're all a bunch of circuitous cocksuckers who talk around what they really mean so as to avoid approaching the subject directly. But, see, it gets even more Shakespearean: this show has fucking SOLILOQUYS. Sometimes they're disguised as monologues in which characters talk to inanimate objects or animals or the girl giving him a blow job, but they're fucking soliloquies. And it never sounds unnatural is the thing. Some actors handle it better than others, and some actors' voices seem perfectly suited for the language (Ian McShane (Al) and William Sanderson (E.B.), specifically, sound like they were born to spout this shit), but it all generally works. Then, of course, there's all the swearing: the word "fuck" and its derivations are reportedly used 2,980 times during the series, yielding 1.56 FPM. As someone who thinks profanity naturally fits into the empty fucking spaces between words, I had no issues!
I really liked the first season, which impressed me with the way that plot and character were inextricably intertwined so that one had a clear effect on the other. I loved that there were so many plots going on at once. The second season sort of got away from me; I found it tedious and confusing at times. The language is so dense that I wasn't sure what was going on and why half the time. The third season regained focus, and I liked it more than the second season, although it still suffered from having a significant amount of scenes/characters/subplots I didn't care a fucking whit about. The show tends to introduce new characters without any explanation and then expect you to care about them independent of their interactions with the characters you actually fucking know. And, after the engaging first season, something really exciting only happens once every three or four episodes. But the third season really gained some momentum toward the end and ended on a high note, even though the story clearly wasn't finished and apparently never will be.
Deadwood is the fucking story of Deadwood, in a nutshell. It's the story of making your own rules, of maintaining internal identity in the face of external forces, of the relationship between man and community, of power struggles and making the hard choices. All told in language that would make your mom wash your mouth out with soap that may have a prize inside.