There was a time when a “Deadwood” reunion seemed as unlikely as Bill Cosby hosting “Saturday Night Live.” Against all odds, creator David Milch has reassembled his cast — 13 years after the drama’s sudden cancellation — for a two-hour movie bound to thrill superfans while keeping disbelievers wondering what all the fuss was about.
I’ve always found myself in the middle of both camps. The film, premiering Friday on HBO, did nothing to sway me closer to either side.
The story picks up in 1889, a decade after we last saw Marshal Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) trying to maintain law and order in the boomtown, with many of the show’s most colorful characters returning to celebrate South Dakota’s statehood. Reunited characters include ambitious George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), now a junior senator from California, and financial whiz Alma Garret (Molly Parker), both of whom still believe there’s gold in them thar hills.
Guilt, revenge and unrequited love still linger, despite the passage of time, like smoke in the crowded saloon operated by Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), as ornery and philosophical as ever.
The telephone has now made its way to Deadwood, but the residents still communicate the same old way, with lots of colorful cursing that would make Selina Meyer from “Veep” feel right at home. They also haven’t shaken their habit of conversing as if rehearsing for a Shakespeare play. Desperate to find a bathroom, the mayor is “wanting leakage.” Instead of advising a friend to shut up, Swearengen advises her to “resist the urge for utterance.”
Some viewers insist that the heightened language elevates the tone; I always found it to be much ado about nothing.
Still, there’s no denying the appeal of the characters, most of whom are based on real people. There’s Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), who handles a gun much better than she handles her booze; congressman Sol Star (played by Minnesotan John Hawkes), the closest the series has to Gabby Hayes; and brothel manager Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), who’s basically Dora DuFran, the madam who coined the term “cathouse.”
Swearengen, who also existed in real life, remains the show’s greatest draw with a wit that’s sharper — and deadlier — than any pistol. That McShane never even got an Emmy nomination during the show’s initial three-season run is a misdemeanor that should be rectified before the Academy’s next gathering.
His character doesn’t have much in common with the heroes or villains in standard Westerns. But Milch was never interested in paying homage to the genre. Instead, the co-creator of “NYPD Blue” is more obsessed with ruminating on life, liberty and the pursuit of whiskey. (If you’re feeling nostalgic, search for 2018’s “Godless,” the Netflix miniseries that director John Ford would have binge-watched in one night.)
One will excuse the film’s use of “Waltzing Matilda,” a song written several years later. Fans won’t even notice. They’ll be too busy savoring the dialogue by Milch — who recently shared that he has Alzheimer’s — and reconnecting with Deadwood’s townsfolk, even if they all don’t make it out alive.