Violent, profane Jersey mobsters are one thing — who can’t get behind ”The Sopranos”? But think back: When that show debuted, skeptics wondered whether the gangster saga hadn’t been ”Godfather”-ed out of our entertainment systems. Like all popular subjects, though, all it took was one artist with an original vision (in that case, David Chase) to revitalize a genre. The same skepticism now holds about the Western, which in recent years has succeeded on TV only in the form of the occasional miniseries (tip your Stetson to Larry McMurtry and ”Lonesome Dove”) or short-lived parody (”The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.” is fondly remembered by tinhorn cultists).
It takes true grit, therefore, for HBO to get behind David Milch’s new violent, profane, and muddy-whenever-it’s-not-dusty Western series, Deadwood. Milch, the man who gave ”NYPD Blue” its most pungent police dialogue, has come up with a horse opera that makes the West wilder than you’ve ever seen it, while retelling tales of legends like Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert). Set toward the end of the 19th century, the series starts in Deadwood, S.D., with the arrival of Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a former marshal who’s looking for peace and a small profit by setting up a supply store with his friend Sol (John Hawkes).
Seth and Sol immediately run into the brute who lords over this ramshackle, lawless town, built on the lure of the gold rush: Al Swearengen (”Sexy Beast”’s Ian McShane), a saloon and brothel owner as well as the possessor of a truly staggering temper and foul mouth. (Ah do declare, if you locked Tony Soprano and Al in a room, the avariciously amoral Al would prob’ly be the last man standin’.) For Seth to build his business, he has to pay off Al, just as most ”Deadwood” denizens do — for drink, for drugs, for sex, for the right to remain living. The only visitor who gives Al the slightest pause is Hickok, already famous in 1876 as a gunslinger. But, as Carradine plays him with impeccable laconic reserve, Hickok has become weary from defending his legend and is essentially a gambling addict — he can’t resist a poker game, no matter how much it puts him in debt.
Good men with bad vices and bad men with no scruples are two of Milch’s specialties, and, working with feature-film director Walter Hill (who also used Carradine in his elegiac 1980 Western ”The Long Riders”), he’s made the premiere of ”Deadwood” a leisurely, dark (I mean literally — going for natural light is one thing, but sometimes I couldn’t see the cards in the saloon scenes), and bleakly funny hour. Its tone is part Sam Peckinpah’s ”Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” part David Mamet’s ”Glengarry Glen Ross,” in the sense that the unstated motto of these prospectors, grifters, and psycho head cases is ”Always be closing”: the deal, the poker hand, the coffin.
Someone on staff has already suggested that EW print a tally of how many times the word c—sucker is used in the ”Deadwood” pilot (for the record: six), but we don’t mean nuthin’ prissy by it. Over the course of the series’ dozen episodes, Milch and other writers, including veterans of ”NYPD” and ”Murder One,” showcase Al as a maestro of obscenity. Other characters make good jokes from the contrast between formal diction and smutty intent, as when a rival saloonkeeper played by Powers Boothe says to a recently arrived friend, ”How ’bout a bath first, and a nap, and some sex with an unfamiliar woman?” Indeed, women get the worst of it in ”Deadwood”: They’re either smacked-around prostitutes, brutally tough broads like Calamity Jane, or, in the case of Molly Parker’s elegant New Yorker, Alma Garret, recent arrivals so shocked by all the depravity that they take to dulling their senses — Alma, for instance, becomes addicted to laudanum.
Like any good Western, ”Deadwood” is filled with scruffy minor characters, such as Al’s obsequious, devious henchman, E.B. Farnum, played by ”Newhart”’s William Sanderson. While the early episodes don’t fully convey how central Olyphant’s Seth becomes, ”Deadwood” creates from the git-go a villain for the ages in Al Swearengen. McShane’s slicingly deep voice is like a bowie knife stuck in the series’ heart, but instead of stopping its action, he brings the show to pumping, bloody life.