Cancelled too soon, creator David Milch’s Shakespearean western returns for a proper send-off

Friday, May 31st, 5 p.m. on CraveTV

More than a decade after Deadwood ended its run in 2006, many fans still question why the series, a critical favourite that racked up 28 Primetime Emmy nominations over three seasons, got cancelled.

For now, however, the revered drama returns to temporary life as a TV movie premiering Friday on Canadian streaming service CraveTV (before reairing Sunday, June 2, on HBO Canada).

Written by series mastermind David Milch, this follow-up resumes the action 10 years after the series finale, as most of the principal characters are reunited to celebrate South Dakota’s statehood.

deadwoodHBOAt the heart of the action, as ever, are local kingpin Al Swearengen (Golden Globe-winner Ian McShane) and Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), the ever-conflicted lawman; other returnees include Paula Malcomson as former prostitute Trixie, B.C.’s Molly Parker (Alma), Brad Dourif (Doc), Robin Weigert (Calamity Jane), Anna Gunn (Martha) and Kim Dickens (Joanie), to name just a few.

“This movie does link back to the last episode we did in season three,” McShane explains. “It was a wonderful, out-of-body experience to revisit these characters.”

As with the series, the film’s narrative hinges largely on the contentious relationship between Swearengen and Bullock. “Al and Bullock are different sides of the same coin,” McShane muses. “It’s just that they can’t stand each other. They’d go crazy if they were forced to spend time together, yet they’re actually very similar: both explosive in nature, but coming from vastly different backgrounds.”

While McShane and Olyphant were the top-billed actors on the series, Milch’s writing gave each character in the large ensemble a distinctive voice. Since the show filmed on a single location—Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch, a famous production studio for westerns—Milch often would fine-tune each episode as it was being rehearsed and shot, McShane notes.

“Milch was constantly adjusting, maybe shifting something as he saw what a particular actor was giving him in a scene,” the actor recalls. “The story was always the same: this place in America in the 1870s, and what happens when civilization gradually creeps in over a period of time and human beings find a way of living together.” Those humans were never one-dimensional heroes or villains—even Al, last seen scrubbing the blood of his latest victim from the floor.

“Al takes care of the under-trodden,” McShane says. “This may seem a romantic view, but he takes care of Jewel [Geri Jewell], a cripple. He doesn’t judge the Chinese at a time when they were hated. Al actually is very liberal in his choice of friends, because they come from the same background he does.

“He has no respect for privilege or position, but he does respect people like himself, who will prove to be the backbone of America. He surrounds himself with people who otherwise would be cast adrift by society in those days. He’s on the side of the angels, even though he may not be one.”