The typical western tropes are all present in "Deadwood" but taken to a new degree. You'll find plenty of cowboys, saloons and gun slinging action, but not what you'd expect. Everything and everyone is handled realistically in accordance with the times, with stereotypes and expectations routinely turned on their head. One of the show's most unique aspects is its basis in historical fact; Deadwood was a real town and these characters are based on real-life counterparts. Sure, famous characters like George Hearst, Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane obviously existed (though the show abandons any tall tales or exaggerated legends in their portrayal), but even seemingly average characters like Seth Bullock, Sol Star and even Al Swearengen were all real inhabitants of this real town. If you're like me, after being sucked in to a show like this, you'll want to read up on the history as much as you can, and I'll bet you'll seriously be surprised to find how much of "Deadwood"—despite how dramatic and fantastic the plots are—actually happened.
That's not to make it sound like a History Channel show. "Deadwood" has a surprising wide appeal, with moments of touching drama and romance, enjoyable action, legitimate humor and even absolute terror. (Swearengen's kidney stone incident still gives me nightmares.) I'm a sucker for westerns, but my girlfriend is definitely not in to the genre at all yet she was completely engaged with this series. There's really an entire world here created by David Milch, which is explored with authenticity over these 36 hour-long episodes, from social situations to gender roles to politics. There's plenty of other interesting tidbits you'll pick up, from their crude use of pisspots to the the scary medical care of the 19th century. (Seriously, I would rather die than be treated for kidney stones back then.)
However, at its heart, "Deadwood" is a show about its characters and you could take this amazing cast and place them in any other time or situation and still see great results. This is honestly one of the best written examples of the television medium, not just for the fantastic tales the creative team weaves over three seasons, but just for the incredible use of language on display. Each script feels antiquated but with modern sensibilities; the writing is authentic to the time period and the way in which people back then spoke (including references and allusions), yet it's all understandable to current audiences and sounds impressively eloquent at the same time. The show is also almost Shakespearean in its use of cursing, treating foul language with an artistry not witnessed since…well, probably THE BIG LEBOWSKI. It may be filthy and exceedingly noticeable at first (especially certain words that are severely frowned upon by today's society) but they're appropriate to the time period and the characters, and soon just becomes a desensitized part of their vernacular that you'll grow to appreciate (and perhaps even mimic).
Though each season is strikingly different in its themes and overarching acs, with characters coming, going, and getting introduced, the core foundation of the show rarely changes. (It gives credence to the saying "the more things change the more they stay the same.") There's so many memorable stories that stick with you and influence your reactions to future complications (one of my favorite parts of the show remains from Season One: the tragic arc of Reverend Smith) but they have no problem consistently surprising you. If you thought the modest resolution reached in the first season finale was "Deadwood" slowing down, the Season Two opener quickly squashed that notion with a fistfight/gunfight to boot. And as the evil George Hearst began to influence the characters more through the second and third seasons, the show takes a slightly looser focus with some ups and downs (like Swearengen pretty much disappearing for some eps, yet overall maintains the same quality. What is truly sad is the ending, which due to HBO's cancellation, leaves threads unresolved and storylines unexplored, which is immensely disappointing.
The stellar cast of great character actors is what really solidifies the show, including Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, Brad Dourif, Brian Cox, Keith Caradine, Powers Boothe, WINTER’S BONE (and Kenny Powers’ brother) John Hawkes, magician Ricky Jay, and the Man in Black from "Lost." There's even bit parts from William Russ (the dad from Boy Meets World) and a young Kristen Bell playing a prostitute, no less. As mentioned before, "Deadwood" is really all about the characters and each one is vividly realized and no matter who they are or how vital they are to the story are mostly given ample time to grow and balance, with the twists, turns and double crossing that goes along with the Wild West. Al Swearengen especially is one of the richest characters ever portrayed on television, going back and forth between a villain and hero on a second-by-second-basis but never being anything less than highly watchable in every episode. So many performances here are award-worthy; the aforementioned McShane as Swearengen, Robin Weigert as the constantly drunk and rude Calamity Jane, Chucky-voice Dourif as the town doctor (who does some incredible work towards the end of the first season) and many more. Although the show was wrongly all-but-ignored in terms of official accolades in comparison to other HBO shows (not to mention cancelled by the network well before its prime), don't think it any less worthy. "Deadwood" is storytelling at its finest, no matter what medium you consider.
Commentaries: There's 17 commentary tracks available (a couple major episodes have more than one) featuring almost all of the major cast, as well as writers, producers, and of course creator/showrunner David Milch. Overall the commentaries are informative and filled with useful info for fans, but some are more interesting than others (any with Olyphant and McShane tag teaming). I will say it is weird hearing the actress playing Calamity Jane speak in a normal human voice,
Making "Deadwood": The Show Behind the Show: This featurette runs about 15 minutes and presents a look at the history of the town and the characters, as well as production of this semi-fictional account. There's some nice interviews with pretty much every member of the cast/crew.
The Real Deadwood: Historians and other scholars discuss the real Deadwood and its inhabitants, what it was like and how it was different than the show. I thought this was fascinating and kind of affected how I viewed the show.
The New Language of the Old West: Creator David Milch and Keith Carradine talk about the show's writing and how to create authenticity.
An Imaginative Reality: A half hour feature that picks up where the previous one left off, with Milch and Carradine talking everything Deadwood, including any historical inaccuracies.
The Real Deadwood: 1877: This follow up to the Season One feature is another chat with the same experts, specifically about the events of the second season and the introduction of Hearst. Just as interesting as the first one.
Making of Episode Twelve: A three-part behind the scenes documentary, this lasts over an hour and goes in to detail about every aspect of putting together the second season finale, from the creative process starting with David Milch, to a specific scene involving Mr. Wu and the staging of the big wedding. Very in-depth and interesting, just from a production standpoint.
Deadwood Matures: Another follow-up historical piece (with the same historians) about the events of the third season.
The Education of Swearengen and Bullock: A closer look at the two "frenemies" and their unique relationship and the actors that play them. Their dynamic is one of my favorites on the show, so I enjoyed this immensely.
The Meaning of Endings: This is a must-watch for fans, as it discusses the premature end of the showm the failure of the supposed Deadwood movies, and what potentially could've happened in a fourth season. Clearly upset, Milch talks candidly about not getting to finish telling the story and finally spills the beans on what they had planned. (I won't ruin it here.)
The Real Deadwood: Out of the Ashes: Okay, one last historical piece. This time the experts discuss the founding and building of the town and the gold mining.
Q&A with Cast and Creative Team: This hour-long chat was part of the Paley Festival and features a public panel with most of the cast and crew. It's fun to see everyone having fun together outside of the set and it's nice to see them interact with fans. I don't think any major new info was spilled here, but its still fun to watch.
Deadwood 360°: Take a tour of the amazing set (which is pretty much a functional town) while cast and crew discuss the structures and the architecture. The production designer also gets some face time here.
Al Swearengen Audition Reel: I like the intention of this quick, jokey segment, which features Man in Black Titus Welliver impersonating Ian McShane and other celebrities auditioning for the main role. (Of course Walken is one.) It's fun, but goofy and kind of awkward.
Assorted Photo Galleries.
Extra Tidbit: The site of Bullock's hardware store is now Bullock's Hotel and is said to be haunted by the ghost of the former sheriff. I'm sure he just appears and curses at people.