The Binge-Watch List: Deadwood is obscenely good TV

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It’s not hard to find TV shows to watch these days. But finding good ones to watch amid all the streaming video services fighting for your attention and your eyeballs? That’s more of a challenge. Every other week, we’ll help you separate a would-be House of Cards from the rest of the pack, as we look at which streaming TV shows are worth your time.

There’s good news for fans of horses, costumes, and a really shocking amount of cursing. Deadwood is available on Amazon Prime Video, because HBO has finally decided to meet the world of streaming video halfway.

Historically, HBO has been a little miserly when it comes to sharing its original program with the wider world. If you want to watch Game of Thrones, HBO would prefer that you either pay up for a subscription or wait for the DVDS or buy them an episode at a time. (Though the pay cable channel is surprising mellow about convincing paying customers to share their HBO Go password with you.) But if you wanted to just subscribe to an Internet service and gorge yourself on critically-acclaimed dramas, you were kind of out of luck—until Amazon Prime Video stepped up to the plate (presumably by paying an enormous amount of money) and started providing some great HBO shows last month, including The Wire, The Sopranos, and Oz.

The deal does not mean HBO’s current programming is available to anyone paying $99 a month for Amazon Prime, so no Game of Thrones for you just yet. But you can enjoy another great blast from HBO’s past—the terrific Deadwood.

What it’s about

In the 1870s, the town of Deadwood in the Dakota Territories was full of sex and violence being perpetrated by a variety of colorful characters. Deadwood takes the actual events and adds a certain amount of unlikely melodrama to make things properly dramatic. You’ve probably heard of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, right? Well, they’re in the show. And things happen about when they’re supposed to, so if you know a lot about history, you might have some foreknowledge about what’s coming up. I don’t want to go into too many spoilery details—even if we are talking about a show that last aired eight years ago and centers around events more than 100 years ago—but suffice it to say, that some major characters don’t make it through the show’s run alive.

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Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) does his best to keep people in Deadwood alive. It's a losing battle.

What makes it interesting

First and foremost, the variety and imagination of the swearing on Deadwood is fantastic. No one uses one profanity when four will do, and most characters tend to string them together into long works of obscene poetry. Deadwood takes cursing out of the gutter and elevates it to the state of art. It’s kind of hypnotic, although it does make one wonder what was in the water in the Dakota territories when even the grubbiest town drunkard can talk like that.

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Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) has a way with words, many of them unprintable.

And the characters! When the series begins, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant, currently shooting people on Justified) arrives in Deadwood, and it seems like he’s going to be our designated Good Guy, standing up for law and righteousness. He’s contrasted by the incredible Al Swearengen (Ian McShane, who was Lovejoy many years ago), who seems at first to be a cartoon villain. But he’s so much more than that: He’s a richly drawn, multi-dimensional character. Though yes, he’s also extremely villainous. There’s no way around that. But he’s a great villain. And a lot of the time, he’s in the right. He might be the smartest man in Deadwood, and he’s certainly the best at cursing. Al’s a fascinating, magnetic character that commands your attention.

What makes it not so great

Well, if you don’t like swearing, you will not enjoy this show. I realize I just said a lot of nice things about the profanity, and I stand by all of them. But at the same time, it’s not for everyone, so if there are any words in the English language that you don’t like hearing, be warned that they’ll probably be said a lot in Deadwood.

Also, the series doesn’t have an ending. It just gets to the end of the third season and then stops. Some people have died along the way and some have lived, but nothing’s really been resolved. At the time, the plan was to have some made-for-HBO movies to wrap up the plot, but they never materialized, leaving the world Deadwood-less. Instead, show creator David Milch gave the world John from Cincinnati, which was just confoundingly bad. To get the full effect, wait until you’ve seen all of Deadwood and wish there was more. Then spin around until you’re so dizzy you fall over and watch a television show in a language you don’t speak. (John From Cincinnati does not appear to be available to Amazon Prime subscribers, perhaps because Amazon doesn’t want to anger and confuse you.)

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Before he wore a cowboy hat on Justified, Timothy Olyphant (right) was sporting a similar wardrobe on Deadwood.

What’s the math

Justified times Bonanza plus a billion trillion curse words

So how is it?

It’s really good. Maybe it’s not as famous as The Sopranos or The Wire—also available on Amazon Prime—but everything doesn’t have to be the greatest show ever made. And there’s a chance that people haven’t been telling you for the lat five years how great it is, so you can approach Deadwood with an open mind.

How many hours should I watch at once?

Four. That conveniently equates to four episodes, so you’ll knock out a season in three days. Then take a day off and plunge into the next one, so you’ll be done with the series in two weeks. Then you’ll probably want to spend a couple of days making sure that your vocabulary has not been filled with elaborately offensive phrases.

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