Picks and Pans Review: Deadwood

updated 03/29/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/29/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

HBO (Sundays, 10 p.m. ET)

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The language on NYPD Blue is as strong as broadcast television will allow, but imagine all the really dirty words David Milch wanted to put in when he was head writer of that ABC cop show.

Well, now he has an outlet for them on HBO. The March 21 debut of Deadwood, scripted by creator Milch, must set a Wild West record for obscenities. It make you miss "dirty varmint," "stinkin' polecat" and other mild epithets once common to the genre.

Once you grow accustomed to the trash talk, however, the series draws you deeper and deeper into a little world where the law holds no sway and right is trodden in the mud. It's 1876, and Deadwood is an unauthorized settlement on Indian land in the Black Hills of South Dakota. All manner of men have descended on the area to pan for gold, and town bully Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) provides them with booze and whores at his Gem Saloon. Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant from Dream-catcher), a former Montana marshal, and his partner Sol Star (John Hawkes) just want to open a hardware store, but Seth hasn't yet learned to ignore injustice or walk away from trouble. Famed gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), still fast on the draw but weary of life, sees in Seth a kindred spirit. "The man has an active conscience," he observes.

The series mixes fact with its fiction, so you may be aware that Wild Bill didn't get out of Deadwood alive. But appreciate the sad dignity of Carradine's performance while you can. McShane revels in his character's villainy and vile vocabulary, and Al's conversations with Seth are electric with the possibility of a future showdown. Other standouts in the large ensemble include Robin Weigert as a Calamity Jane whose bark seems worse than her bite; William Sanderson as an innkeeper who toadies to Al while wiping his chronically sweaty palms; and Brad Dourif as Deadwood's only doctor, who regularly does Al's bidding but asserts his humanity with small acts of defiance.


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