HBO just might have found its next great dramatic addiction — a vulgar, gritty, at times downright nasty take on the Old West brimming with all the dark genius that series creator and writer extraordinaire David Milch has at his fingertips. Certainly not for everyone, “Deadwood” is nevertheless a captivating addition to the pay channel — the kind of dense, serialized and profane piece that would struggle to survive the sifting-process anywhere else and that should enthrall a passable portion of “The Sopranos” mob.
Set in the lawless Dakota Territory during the 1870s, Deadwood feels like a living, breathing town, down to the stink, filth and corruption permeating it.
Much has been made already of the extremely blue language — which goes beyond George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” routine to come up with a few even ol’ George didn’t think of — but that only scratches the surface of what Milch has concocted.
Mixing real-life characters with fictionalized elements, “Deadwood” creates a vivid assortment of personalities who pan for gold, stay drunk most of the time and occasionally kill somebody. At one point, a prospector happily notes he’s “made my quota for whiskey, pussy and food,” which basically describes the level to which most of the denizens aspire.
At its heart is Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a former marshal who, with his partner, is seeking fortune as a salesman in the lawless territory. After the horrific slaying of a pioneer family, Bullock befriends Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), the legendary gunslinger who is clearly one of the earliest victims of celebrity. A drunkard and compulsive gambler, Hickok is such an attraction that local saloons will pay to have him play cards there, not that he’s terribly enthusiastic about the notion.
The town’s evil center, meanwhile, is Al Swearengen (British veteran Ian McShane), who runs prostitutes, gambling and pretty much any other nefarious activity that will earn him a buck. Bullock instantly dislikes him, and there’s palpable tension and electricity surrounding every scene they share.
Olyphant, who possesses a steely quality as Bullock, provides the closest thing to a moral core the show has to offer. Robin Weigert (recently seen in HBO’s “Angels in America”) also registers strongly as the incredibly foul-mouthed Calamity Jane, a lovely actress virtually unrecognizable under the dirt and grime. Then again, the casting is exceptional from top to bottom, with Brad Dourif, Jeffrey Jones and Molly Parker among them.
Getting Walter Hill to direct the premiere was another inspired stroke, inasmuch as his tough-guy resume includes a 1995 film about Hickok, “Wild Bill.” As deftly played here by Carradine, he’s a weary, tragic figure, a captive of his reputation who inherently recognizes his fate has long since been sealed. “Can’t you let me go to Hell the way I want to?” he asks the doting Jane with a sense of resignation.
This horse opera’s maestro, though, is ultimately Milch, the “NYPD Blue” co-creator who instinctively revels in the high and low: Where else would a character spit out such disarming dialogue, in extending Bullock a proposition, that “I pray, as a Christian man, you will entertain on its own fucking merits.”
Introducing layers as it goes along, “Deadwood” gains complexity through the first handful of episodes. That said, Milch’s quest for historical accuracy ensures this skein isn’t for the faint of heart, including the creative expletives and generally dismal treatment of women, most of whom are whores at best.
The HBO model amounts to a quilt — designed to attract and retain subscribers by appealing to diverse interests — and the pay service is about to lose some oversized patches, with “Sex and the City” done and “The Sopranos” in its penultimate year.
Considering “Deadwood” from that perspective, my guess is there are a few million folks who won’t be inclined to cancel while it’s on, which, in the business stream that HBO navigates, represents the shiniest nugget of all.