An old broadcast hand is taking Home Box Office's newest original series back to the Old West, with mostly good results.Deadwood
— from executive producer David Milch of NYPD Blue renown — is an interesting look at life in a Dakota mining settlement just beyond the reach of U.S. law. Set in July, 1876, the action begins just two weeks after the Sioux Indians had scalped Custer's troops at Little Big Horn. That tension hangs over both the pilot and the series' first regular episode.
The series, which combines fictional and real-life characters, at first centers around friends Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Sol Star (John Hawkes), who give up their lives in a less-lawless part of the West — where the former was the local marshal — in favor of making their bones as hardware salesmen to the miners who've come to make their fortune in Deadwood.
As the two would-be shopkeepers arrive, another party heads to the camp — famed Wild West lawman Wild Bill Hickock (Keith Carradine), along with his travel companions Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) and Jack McCall (Garrett Dillahunt).
Deadwood's big player is Al Swearegen, a brothel (this being HBO, there's plenty of action on display here) and saloon owner who has his hand in most of the town's illegal businesses. Played with convincing menace by Ian McShane (Sexy Beast), he runs afoul of both Bullock and Hickock just one night after the two ex-lawmen show up.
On the "hardware boys' " first night in Deadwood, one of the locals rushes into the saloon to announce that a family of "squareheads" (Norwegian immigrants who'd struck out in Deadwood, and were headed back to Minnesota) had been killed by Sioux on the road. Since there was doubt over whether or not one of the children survived, Hickock and Bullock volunteer to get together a posse to try and find her.
The two ex-lawmen soon come to the opinion that the family was ambushed by road agents, and not by Indians, and the man whom they believe to be responsible is killed by either Hickock and Bullock, or both, in a shootout.
But the road agents turn out to be in Swearegen's employ, creating intrigue — and bad feelings — that should set the tone for this gritty drama throughout the season. Gunsmoke it's not: Though the language is authentic for the 1870s, it's also as salty as anything that Tony might say to Silvio on The Sopranos.
And it's also filled with other authentic, if brutal, touches: As was the case in the real-world Deadwood, shootout victims and others who die in the camp have their corpses fed to the pigs — and viewers get to watch.
The swirls of intrigue, quirky characters and authenticity make Deadwood a compelling view, though there are so many players in the first two episodes it's next to impossible to keep track of who's who. Hopefully, the stories will become more streamlined as the series marches further along the trail.
premieres March 7 on Home Box Office.