Like The Shield, Tilt, and maybe too many others, HBO's raw Western series Deadwood follows The Sopranos' first-episode model: a little nudity, a lot of profanity, and a shocking act of violence perpetrated by a charismatic anti-hero. Deadwood's lovable bad guy is Machiavellian saloonkeeper Ian McShane, who has a vested interest in keeping his unincorporated South Dakota camp lawless. He batters his prostitutes, harangues his lackeys, and arranges murders to protect his gold-mining swindles. He's an incorrigible wheeler-dealer, contracting services for "$10 or a ball of dope," and keeping his customers from fleeing the saloon to join a lynch mob by promising "pussy half-off, next 15 minutes."
But McShane's not the one who gets his hands dirty in Deadwood's debut. That falls to the town's conscience, department-store proprietor Timothy Olyphant, who begins and ends the first episode with a callous exercise of frontier justice. And almost worse than McShane is his opposite number Powers Boothe, who opens a classier saloon/casino/brothel across the street, but quickly reveals himself to be just as ruthlessly amoral as his rival. Throughout Deadwood's 12 first-season episodes, creator David Milch and his crew study how civilizations get built out of chaos, through subtle power plays and calculated bloodletting in a place "in the middle of nowhere, where nobody's looking." The series dwells on dualitiestwo kinds of prostitute, two kinds of businessman, two natures warring with a single manand shows how they're flip sides of the same playing card.
None of this is all that radical for a TV Western. The first few seasons of Bonanza served up weekly moral conflicts, and Sam Peckinpah's existential cult series The Westerner offered Brian Keith as a wandering gunman proving himself to suspicious strangers every episode. But Deadwood has a rare sense of scope and space. After a bang-up first episode, the show stumbles a bit as it tries to edge along half a dozen dreary subplots, but about halfway through the season, Milch and company find a rhythm, ratcheting up the narrative tension while relaxing the mood. The early episodes' whispery voices and drunken lamentations give way to a gallery of memorable character actors in top emotive form, including Brad Dourif as the perpetually disgusted town doctor, Jeffrey Jones as a blowhard newspaperman, Ray McKinnon as a preacher in spiritual crisis, Kristen Bell as an angel-faced con artist, Ricky Jay as a cynical pit boss, and William Sanderson as the squirrelly hotelier in McShane's pocket.
Much has been made of Deadwood's flavorfully profane dialogue, but it's the clever musicality of lines like "he's got a mean way of being happy" that make the show sing. Even period details, like the town's reliance on canned fruit over fresh, are handled without fuss, and in ways that move the story along. McShane advises a lackey to "buy some fucking fruit and the like" for a town meeting, then tells his guests to get it off the bar and scoop it out themselves, which they decline to do. A few episodes later, McShane holds another meeting and directly serves up canned peaches and pears, which give his guests the runs. It's a funny bit of business and an illustration of one of Deadwood's main points: Be wary of men with serpentine manners and platters of fruit.