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'Deadwood' TV Movie Offers A Fitting Conclusion After The Series Was Canceled


Fans of HBO's profanity-filled western "Deadwood" will be treated to a two-hour movie tomorrow night. The show was abruptly canceled in 2006. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the movie is a fitting conclusion.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: David Milch, "Deadwood's" creator, writes lines for his Old West characters that sound like a cross between Shakespeare and a barroom argument. Consider this moment from the "Deadwood" movie which features the show's resident heavy, Al Swearengen, learning from his doctor that his health isn't so good. The conversation starts with Swearengen, played with bawdy gusto by Ian McShane, responding to his doctor who notes that he doesn't know what day it is.


IAN MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) Mistaking Friday for Tuesday - well, secure my burial plot.

BRAD DOURIF: (As Doc Cochran) Features drawn, flesh of a yellowish cast - I'd have you forbear from spirits.

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) Under advisement.

DOURIF: (As Doc Cochran) Oh, no. Don't you humor me or talk down to me neither, nor fix to mix in where you ain't been invited

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) Whilst you comport the very like to me?

DOURIF: (As Doc Cochran) You went somewhat wrong at your liver, Al.

DEGGANS: Sometimes watching "Deadwood" can make you feel like you need a Milch-to-English dictionary. But Swearengen, who drinks so much his housekeeper regularly plucks an empty bottle from his bed every morning, is learning that his liver is giving out.

"Deadwood" burst onto HBO in 2004 - a gritty, realistic western centered on a sprawling South Dakota gold mining camp in 1876. McShane's Swearengen owns the saloon and brothel in town, the Gem. And as the movie opens, 10 years have passed since we've last seen these characters. On the series, Swearengen was often the wily boss behind much of the town's sordid crime. In the movie, the town's nemesis, George Hearst, is played by Gerald McRaney, returning to Deadwood - now a senator from California - demanding Swearengen's help.


GERALD MCRANEY: (As George Hearst) I am making an offer on Charlie Utter's land. Lumber for construction arrived this morning.

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) Confident, are we?

MCRANEY: (As George Hearst) Back my bid for buying up Utter's property. Use your position in the town to sway others, and I will drop any counteraction against the whore who attacked me.

MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) Uncharacteristically straightforward, sir.

DEGGANS: These characters have a lot of history. The "Deadwood" movie definitely deploys flashback scenes to hint at that history for newcomers or to remind longtime fans. Fans also get to see Robin Weigert's gloriously foul-mouthed Calamity Jane try reuniting with her girlfriend, hostess Joanie Stubbs, or Timothy Olyphant's sharp-shooting lawman Seth Bullock, who has to be talked out of directly confronting Hearst by Swearengen.


MCSHANE: (As Al Swearengen) You ever think, Bullock, of not going straight at a thing?

TIMOTHY OLYPHANT: (As Seth Bullock) No. My job ain't to follow the law, Al. My job is to interpret it, then enforce it accordingly.

DEGGANS: Bullock sounds like the voice of wrath itself, bringing justice in a town where that's often tough to come by. But "Deadwood" made history by bringing TV's antihero stories to the classic television western. The good guys didn't always win, and endings weren't always so neat and tidy. That may be why this movie, which satisfyingly resolves stories for many of its characters - especially Swearengen - doesn't quite reach the heights of "Deadwood" at its best.

Swearengen's health issues also feel more poignant because creator Milch, always renowned for his storytelling genius, has recently revealed he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Ultimately, the "Deadwood" movie is a pleasing reunion, giving the characters and Milch the kind of ending this groundbreaking series always deserved. I'm Eric Deggans.


Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.