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Down and dirty 'Deadwood' strikes gold

Every Western since Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" is said to be revisionist in some way or another. So I'll only say that HBO's extraordinary new Western, "Deadwood," is not your father's horse opera and that it stands proudly beside the bleak, unromanticized likes of Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" and Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove."

It's a grimy, morally turbulent, and psychologically knowing take on the same genre that once made John Wayne a national hero (and, much later, made President Bush, with his "Wanted Dead or Alive" stand, into Wayne's impersonator).

In "Deadwood," which premieres Sunday night at 10, you will find the Western's conventional quest for gold nuggets, the faithful Doc, and the gambling saloon drunks knocking over chairs. But you'll also run across more expletive-spewing than a rabid Tony Soprano, foul pigs who dine on the town's latest unlucky guest, a sheriff who hangs a thief without a trial, and a population caked in vintage soot that's so oily you can almost smell it.

"Deadwood" stinks, which is one reason it's so good.

The show is the creation of David Milch, who gave us the envelope-pushing "NYPD Blue" back in the days when Janet Jackson was still dressing like the Music Man. And it makes the most of Milch's ability to turn raw American speech -- this time from 1876 -- into a kind of ungrammatical, Mamet-ian poetry.

It also showcases Milch's taste for complexity when it comes to both the criminal mind and the lawman's motivations.

Unhindered by network TV's decency standards and its obligation to simplify for the viewer, Milch presents the lawless town of Deadwood, S.D., in its full anarchic enormity, from the STDs and violence that plague the brothels to the laudanum habit that haunts the only aristocratic lady in town. With "Deadwood," Milch takes the license of HBO and rides happily into the West with it.

Deadwood was a real mining camp that sprang up in Indian territory when news of gold brought scrappy dreamers and fugitives willing to try their luck in places unregulated by US law. And Milch throws real characters such as Calamity Jane Cannary and Wild Bill Hickok into the Deadwood general population (which isn't unlike the riotous "genpop" on HBO's late prison drama, "Oz").

But Deadwood isn't a history lesson, and its realism is more stylistic than documentary. Keith Carradine's Wild Bill is a morose figure who's as weary and numb as Bill Murray's disenfranchised actor in "Lost in Translation."

He's just sliding by on his reputation as a gunfighter, using his celebrity to shill for saloon owners. And the childlike Jane (Robin Weigert) is his loyal subject, an emotional loose cannon with a whiskey-soaked noble streak. She's a long, long way from Doris Day.

A number of other central "Deadwood" characters are real, too, but they're more obscure. Deadwood newcomer Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant, looking like a lean Vincent D'Onofrio) is a former sheriff who buddies up with Bill while trying to open an honest hardware store.

He's more invested in business than crime-solving, but any man with half a conscience is doomed to protect the innocent in Deadwood. If there is a spectrum of good and evil on the show, picture Bullock in white and Gem saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) in pitch black.

Swearengen (who does indeed swear a lot) would be the Tony Soprano of "Deadwood" if he evinced even the slightest hint of feeling. He's a controlling varmint and pimp who cheats everyone in his path, and he orders his Dickensian goons to murder anyone who catches him. McShane is a marvel of cold, dead-eyed cruelty.

"The Sopranos" appeals to those who don't tend to like Mafia shows, but "Deadwood" probably won't convert viewers who dislike Westerns. It doesn't open up into themes of family and tradition so much as it watches individuals running from their pasts and fending for themselves.

And, initially, "Deadwood" may put off viewers accustomed to easy viewing. The premiere (directed by Walter Hill) is muddled with too many character introductions and too much premise set-up, and it requires some concentration.

But in the second episode, the chaos subsides and the show gains a strong narrative momentum. And you can see Milch's vision emerge of what America and greed look like without legal constructs.

It's not a pretty picture.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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