Your next box set: Deadwood

Ian McShane is a world away from Lovejoy, in this foul-mouthed and wonderful lost TV gem

Chances are, if you've never seen it, that you know two things about Deadwood. One, they swear a lot. Two, it's got Lovejoy in it. The HBO series, which ran for three seasons between 2004 and 2006, is perhaps the most potty-mouthed programme ever screened, with the word "fuck" appearing 43 times in the pilot episode alone. One character communicates almost entirely through the word "cocksucka". The faint of heart may keel over before the end of the opening credits. And the meanest, sweariest, nastiest of them is played by twinkly old Ian McShane, one-time unlikely heartthrob for housebound ladies of a certain age. One glimpse of McShane as the brutal but devilishly charismatic bar owner Al Swearengen, however, will banish the mullet of his 80s incarnation from the memory for ever.

Even McShane must have been staggered at how brilliant he is in Deadwood (he won a Golden Globe), though his is not the only exceptional character. The programme is set in the real town of the same name, in what would become South Dakota, and is loosely based on its history and the real-life figures who lived there. The first season opens in 1876, shortly after Custer's last stand, when the camp, not yet a town, is an illegal settlement on what is officially still Indian land. There is, as characters frequently state, "no law in Deadwood", and the heady mix of anarchic liberty and gold attracts a Dickensian cast of miners, gamblers, killers, pimps and whores. No town can survive without any rules at all, however, and the three seasons brilliantly capture Deadwood's evolution into something like a society - a metaphor, perhaps, for America itself.

It's brainy (creator David Milch wrote for Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue) and fabulously dark and soupy, and, for my money, much more human and engaging than The Wire or The Shield. Fans are still bereft that it was cancelled after three seasons. It's a lost televisual gem.


Esther Addley

The GuardianTramp

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