Forget Gunsmoke and Bonanza. The HBO series Deadwood was as close to the "real thing" as any Western fan was ever going to see on television -- and in its pursuit of reality, the series was not afraid of smashing icons or skewering sacred cows. Could anything less be expected of executive producer David Milch (NYPD Blue)? The series began its story in 1876, two weeks after Custer's demise at the Little Big Horn, and in the midst of "gold fever" brought about by a major ore strike in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory. Into the wide-open and illegal settlement of Deadwood rode a terrifying variety of hard-bitten men and hard-living women. Keith Carradine headed the cast (at least in the early episodes) as gunfighter and Indian scout Wild Bill Hickok -- not the clean-cut hero of movie and TV fame, but an embittered, disillusioned, cold-hearted killer who trusted no one, least of all himself. Traveling to Deadwood with old friend Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) and devoted, foul-mouthed sidekick Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), Hickok quickly met and befriended former lawman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), the archetypal man with a past who held out hope (but not much) that Deadwood would permit him a new start in life. The destinies of both Hickok and Bullock were gradually intertwined with that of self-styled town boss Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), the manipulative, cheerfully decadent owner of Deadwood's biggest "saloon," the Gem. Several major and minor characters passed through Deadwood, some for a long time, some only as long as it took to be shot down in the street. One of the more fascinating peripheral characters was gimlet-eyed cardsharp Eddie Sawyer, well played by real-life magician and master card manipulator Ricky Jay. Festooned with sex, sadism, sudden death, rampant profanity, and mud, mud, mud, Deadwood was not your father's "cowboy" show. The series drew huge ratings and enthusiastic critical plaudits from the moment it made its first appearance on March 21, 2004 -- and within a few weeks of this debut, all audience expectations were dashed to bits when one of the series' "stars" paid homage to historical accuracy by being abruptly killed off.
by Hal Erickson synopsis