clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why ‘Deadwood’ Is a Top-10 TV Show of All Time

An exclusive excerpt from ‘TV (The Book),’ a definitive ranking of every show ever

AP Images
AP Images

By Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz

Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz have been writing about television for more than 40 combined years. They were colleagues at The Star-Ledger newspaper for years, and have since gone on to become two of the best-known TV critics in the country at Hitfix and Vulture, respectively. They’ve teamed up for TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time, out next week. How do two experts make their picks? Their methodology is detailed below, followed by an entry from their top 10 rankings on HBO’s meta-western saga Deadwood. Where does it rank? You’ll have to buy the book to find out.

The Explanation

How Does This Work?

Grand Central Publishing
Grand Central Publishing

The heart of TV (The Book) is the Pantheon: a list of the one hundred greatest comedies and dramas.

To create it, we made a list of several hundred candidates for the best shows of all time, allowing for various caveats explained in the following pages.

Then we set about the sensible and not-at-all-controversial task of assigning numerical values to art.

We decided on five categories, to which we eventually added a sixth. Each of us was assigned 10 points per category, for a possible maximum score of 120 if both of us gave a particular series perfect scores. (No show got perfect scores across the board.)

Those categories are:

Innovation. Was the show trying something — in terms of form, subject matter, or both — that felt new, or was it following or embellishing upon tradition? Shows like All in the Family and 24 scored highly here because they did things no one in American television had really tried before, whereas an otherwise great show like Parks and Recreation had a comparatively low Innovation rating because it largely duplicated a stylistic template its creators had used for The Office.

Influence. How much of an impact did the show have either on the medium of television or on the culture at large? Shows like Hill Street Blues and Friends were copied by many other TV series. Freaks and Geeks, a short-lived show that had few obvious imitators, scored highly because of the impact its cast and creators had on the entire comedy business during the past fifteen years. Will & Grace (which finished outside the top 100) scored highly here because of the role it played in helping to reshape public attitudes about homosexuality.

Consistency. How much did the quality fluctuate from episode to episode, or season to season? That said, consistency isn’t a mark just of smooth sailing from start to finish but of how well a series weathered storms beyond its control, like Nancy Marchand’s death after only two seasons of The Sopranos, or the constant cast turnover on Law & Order.

Performance. This deals not only with how great the actors on the show were but how well-crafted their characters were. So The Sopranos did better in this category than 24, because even if you feel that James Gandolfini and Kiefer Sutherland were giving performances of equal quality, Tony Soprano was just a richer, more complex character than Jack Bauer, and the same was true of supporting characters on each series.

Storytelling. Here we come to the parts of writing beyond characterization, such as tone and structure, not to mention such filmmaking elements as direction, production design, editing, and music. Among the seeming intangibles that come into play are comic timing, suspense, surprise, formal audacity, and its obverse, perfectly executed classicism. Hannibal, Twin Peaks, and The Simpsons prided themselves on doing something different every week, whereas Cheers and The Honeymooners did more or less the same thing every week. All five scored well in this category because what matters in storytelling isn’t just what you’re doing but how well you’re doing it.

Peak. A late addition, factoring in how great each show was at its absolute best, using a full season, more or less, as our unit of measurement. Other categories were judged against the entirety of television; this was graded on a curve against the rest of the Pantheon: only a few 10s, lots of middling scores, and a few low ones reflecting how that show’s best compares to, say, the fourth seasons of The Wire or Seinfeld.

What Shows Were Considered?

We made the following rules:

1. US television shows only.

Fawlty Towers, Prime Suspect, Space Battleship Yamato (Star Blazers), Les Revenants (The Returned), both Kingdom miniseries, and other beloved imports would rank highly if we opened this book to international series. Ultimately, though, we felt that while there were a few blind spots here and there in our knowledge of TV originating in the States, the gaps became much wider when we factored in shows from other countries. We didn’t want to be so foolish as to mistake our knowledge of the relatively paltry handful of British, Mexican, Japanese, Danish, and other foreign shows that have made it to the United States for the totality of international TV. Given US programs’ global reach, this might not be as much of an issue for critics in other countries, but there would still be knowledge constraints. If French critics were doing their version of this book and trying to include American series, they’d surely know of The Sopranos and I Love Lucy, but would they know Terriers or Frank’s Place?

The line between what is and isn’t a US-made show can be blurry, and we made what are sure to be considered debatable calls. To use three current examples: Game of Thrones is shot all over the world and has an international cast, but it originates on and is funded by HBO, so we counted it as a US series. Top of the Lake was shot in New Zealand and cofunded by several international sources, but a good chunk of that money came from Sundance Channel, so we counted it as US. And Catastrophe is a hilarious comedy cocreated by and costarring American comedian Rob Delaney, but he and Sharon Horgan made it for the United Kingdom’s Channel 4; that it’s available to stream here on Amazon makes it no more American than Sherlock, which is produced in the UK but airs here on PBS.

Of course there are going to be some borderline cases that we will cop to having included because we liked them and felt confident in writing about them. We might get dinged for inconsistency there, but we’re willing to live with it.

2. Completed shows only. Mostly.

If we were writing this book in early 2012, and Homeland had been canceled after its first, outstanding season, it might have earned itself a spot somewhere in the top 100. The ensuing seasons, unfortunately, dragged its average down far enough that it finished well outside the running. TV shows can vary wildly in quality from season to season — just look at the roller-coaster ride that was Friday Night Lights seasons 1–3 — and it felt unfair to make final judgments if a show wasn’t complete. You never know when a series is going to pull a Roseanne and do something absolutely dire in a later year, or make like Frasier or Scrubs and return to former glory before the end.

That said, we made exceptions. The Simpsons has been on the air for almost thirty seasons, which feels like a large enough sample size to make a judgment about, no matter how good or bad the next few decades of the show may be. (Ditto South Park as it finishes its second decade.) We also made space for a few shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, and Louie, which could theoretically return at some point but which were on prolonged hiatuses at the time of this book’s creation. If more seasons or episodes get produced, great: We’ll happily watch and evaluate them. If not, we’re comfortable judging them as if they were complete.

We decided to consider Twin Peaks and The X-Files complete despite the existence of recent or upcoming seasons that were announced while we were writing the book. We felt that because so much time has elapsed since the presumed “end” of each series — fourteen years for The X-Files; twenty-five-plus years for Twin Peaks — that any additional seasons should be considered the beginnings of separate series (or miniseries) that have the same names.

3. Narrative fiction only.

As it is, comparing comedies and dramas — let alone shows from different eras, like trying to decide whether The Fugitive is greater than 30 Rock — was onerous enough without also trying to figure out variables for sketch comedy, talk shows, documentary and news programs, reality TV, sports, and so on. Comedy versus drama is already apples and oranges; to add plantains, tangelos, and star fruit would have been foolish indeed.

We considered anthology shows on a case-by-case basis, deciding that series such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits fit the larger idea of what we were trying to do, because the episodes each week were linked by style and theme and, often, a common creative team, while something like Playhouse 90 should be looked at more as an umbrella title for a collection of filmed plays, some of which are cited individually elsewhere in the book. (Ditto the brilliant Mystery Science Theater 3000, which consists of maybe 90 percent annotated film-watching and 10 percent character-based comedy.)

We steered away from children’s programming because, like international programming, the subject seemed vast enough to merit a second book, and too prone to glaring omissions to consider here. (Our own children protested this choice.) A few series that could be considered kids’ shows are cited in the Pantheon and on other lists; they made it in because if, by some chance, you were not in the company of kids when you first stumbled upon them, you might have considered them sophisticated enough to pass muster as grown-up entertainment. SpongeBob SquarePants is an absurdist masterpiece that Salvador Dalí and Groucho Marx would have watched together in their smoking jackets, Samurai Jack is the greatest action movie that John Woo never made, and Recess is Lord of the Flies plus One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, minus murder.

4. One-season shows are eligible, but with some penalties.

This was the subject of a lot of debate. Is it fair to judge a show like My So-Called Life — which made nineteen more or less perfect episodes, then ended before it could enter the kind of decline phase that afflicted Homeland — against long-running series that were subjected to the indignities and compromises that come with age? Yes, for the same reason that one could compare the acting virtues of James Dean, who appeared in only three films, and Paul Newman, who appeared in almost sixty.

But once you decide to do that, you need to establish parameters. In an effort to consider one-season wonders while being fair to shows that stuck around longer, we artificially limited their point totals, which means they had to be extra-impressive in their one season to make it into the Pantheon. The most a one-season show could score in each category was a 9, except for consistency — the easiest task to accomplish over only a year — where the highest possible score was a 7.

Deadwood (HBO, 2004–2006) Total score: 107


Whenever arguments are held about the best TV dramas of all time, and particularly of this modern golden age, Deadwood — like Deadwood’s craven mayor, E. B. Farnum (William Sanderson), whenever there’s important scheming to do — gets left out. It’s not that people can’t recognize the brilliant performances, particularly by Ian McShane as the show’s cutthroat antihero, bartending crime lord Al Swearengen, or the poetry of the dialogue by the show’s creator, David Milch. It’s that Deadwood ran only three seasons when Milch had been very publicly angling for at least four, and that HBO’s promise of two sequel movies was never fulfilled. How can a show that finished so abruptly, and in such a messy fashion, possibly compete with a Sopranos or a Wire, whose creators got to end their creations on their own terms?

Easy. Because messiness and an aversion to closure were parts of the deal with Deadwood from the start — and because the real-world furor over the cancellation obscures the fact that the actual ending Milch wrote under tough circumstances was as appropriate and true to the spirit of the thing as anything he might have devised if he’d had a couple of more years to think about it.

Not that Milch — a devout believer in the notion that when men plan, God laughs — was ever much for long-range preparation. The series is not only TV’s great unfinished masterpiece, but its greatest improvised masterpiece, with many of those incredible lines of dialogue — “What a type you must consort with, that you not fear beating for such an insult” — dreamed up only days, or even hours, before the actors spoke them before HBO’s cameras.

Deadwood tried to retell the story of the founding of civilization (American and otherwise) by reimagining Deadwood, a Dakota gold-mining camp that went from a chaotic hellhole in an unincorporated territory to an incorporated town within an incorporated US state in the space of a few post–Civil War years. The show was, in no particular order, a Western, a gangster picture, a political drama, a lewd farce, and a comedy of manners; an operatic potboiler chock-full of sex, violence, and profanity; a sustained long-form narrative that interweaves parallel plots tighter than a hangman’s rope; a satire on American hypocrisy and greed; a portrait of needy, ambitious people who see through other people’s illusions but cleave tight to their own; a revisionist look at frontier life; a case study of a civilization struggling to create itself; and a weekly showcase for characters and dialogue so rich in complexity and contradiction that they deserve to be called Shakespearean.

Milch was uniquely suited to this quixotic task. A Yale-educated recovering drug addict and onetime pupil of Robert Penn Warren, he had written and produced for Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, so he understood the project from a literary and philosophical as well as populist standpoint, and even when he was writing theatrically complex, ostentatiously profane monologues for his characters, he always kept his finger on the show’s humanist pulse. Like Robert Altman’s town-based Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which Milch cited as a primary influence, Deadwood took a sardonic yet compassionate God’s-eye view of its setting, observing powerful and helpless individuals as they tried (and often failed) to better themselves.

There are no pure heroes in Deadwood, but two characters dominate: Swearengen and newly appointed sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant). On first glance, Swearengen resembles a nineteenth-century mob boss — a mustachioed godfather in a stinky suit, making a fortune dealing dope, liquor, gambling, and sex in his saloon, the Gem. Bullock is a terse, tightly wound man of action in the Gary Cooper–Clint Eastwood mode. (His ramrod posture and machinelike stride suggest he really does have steel in his spine.) Yet both men are more complex, at times confounding, than this summary suggests.

Swearengen is a vicious sociopath who lectures employees on the right way to clean up a bloodstain and delivers ornately profane monologues while being serviced by prostitutes. But he has a weird tender streak. He claims to employ a handicapped cleaning woman, Jewel (Geri Jewell), to give penniless johns a hooker they can afford, but that seems to be a macho lie. Al dominates and abuses another of his prostitutes, Trixie (Paula Malcomson), but seems incomplete and dissatisfied after Trixie takes up with Bullock’s business partner, the Jewish frontiersman Sol Star (John Hawkes). In the first-season finale, when the Reverend H. W. Smith (Ray McKinnon) lies dying in dementia from a brain tumor, Al — recalling the similar struggle his late brother went through — strangles him to end his suffering, tenderly whispering, “You can go now, brother,” as he holds a rag over the man’s mouth and nose.

If Swearengen is an evil man with good in him, Bullock is his opposite — a straitlaced, married businessman who intervenes in other people’s troubles yet seems incapable of controlling his own volcanic rage. These flaws combine to devastating effect in the first-season finale, when Bullock’s lover, widow Alma Garret (Molly Parker), receives an unexpected visit from her ne’er-do-well father. When Alma’s dad tries to blackmail her by threatening to spread rumors that she killed her husband and took over his gold claim, Bullock goes berserk and beats the man to a pulp in the middle of a crowded casino, then asks a visiting Army colonel to protect the man against various enemies, Bullock included. “We all have bloody thoughts,” the colonel tells Bullock, a half-statement that completes itself in the mind.

Bullock and Swearengen’s psychological-poetic connection forms the core of Deadwood. They’re surrounded by characters every bit as tangled, from Swearengen’s murderous right hand, Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown), who clings to Al the way a toddler clings to Daddy, to Swearengen’s chief competitor, saloon maven Cyrus Tolliver (Powers Boothe), who treats his onetime employee, prostitute-turned-madam Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), like an ex-wife, a surrogate daughter, and a business rival all at once. The show’s complexities are embodied in Milch’s dialogue, which weds profanity to poetry, encloses thoughts inside thoughts, and back-loads its sentences in the manner of pre-twentieth-century verse, unpacking its components in order of importance and withholding the most potent image or idea until the end. Tending a wounded Sol Star, Trixie says, “I pray to God your shoulder pains like some sharp-toothed creature’s inside you and at it and gnawing.” Swearengen chides smart-mouthed henchman Silas Adams (Titus Welliver), “Over time, your quickness with a cocky rejoinder must have gotten you many punches in the face,” and heals a dispute with Dan by promising, “Whatever looks ahead of grievous abominations and disorder, you and me walk into it together like always.”

All Milch’s characters are this rich and slippery. With her doe-eyed “respectability,” flirting skill, and secret drug habit, Garret is part sturdy frontier widow, part femme fatale. Farnum, Swearengen’s emissary and foil, is a scheming little weasel, but he’s got an agile mind, a poetic tongue, and grand ambitions. Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) is a one-man board of health and an angry hermit drowning his Civil War nightmares in whiskey. Trixie’s gutter mouth and matter-of-fact carnality contrast with her devotion to Sol, Swearengen, and an orphaned girl, while the romanticized toughness of Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) — who in another era had been played in a movie by Doris Day — was revealed to be a defense mechanism of a profoundly damaged woman.

Deadwood pairs the characters’ private struggles with larger events. In the fourth episode of the first season, famous gunslinger and dying alcoholic Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) is shot dead by Jack McCall (Garret Dillahunt). McCall’s flight, capture, and subsequent trial are public events, the outcomes of which affect every citizen. Milch presented the shooting not just as a random act of murder but as a celebrity assassination and a signpost marking the end of the Old West as both fact and legend. The first-season finale mirrored Bullock’s accepting his destiny as sheriff with a cavalry garrison’s arrival in town — complementary images of order confronting chaos.

The second season deals with the arrival of Francis Wolcott, chief geologist for mining mogul George Hearst. (He was played by Dillahunt, with Milch not caring if viewers recognized him as Jack McCall sporting a beard and a more cultured accent.) On the one hand, Wolcott represents the encroachment of both capitalism and civilization — that a man as powerful as Hearst sees value in the camp only makes the place more appealing to the political swells in the territory’s capital, Yankton. On the other hand, Wolcott is a serial killer of women, and the techniques he and his lackeys use to gain a monopoly on the camp’s gold claims suggest that the optimism so many of Deadwood’s citizens arrived with should be severely tempered.

Hearst himself (TV veteran Gerald McRaney, giving — like so many of the show’s actors — the best performance of his career) arrives at the end of the second season and dominates the third. He is a revolting depiction of pure capitalism, uninterested in any issue beyond acquiring more gold (or, as he puts it, “the color”), and with the physical and political might to run roughshod over Swearengen, Bullock, and the rest of the camp. Though Al would gain the occasional victory — like Dan beating Hearst’s chief goon to death in the thoroughfare at the end of the most savage fight scene in TV history — Hearst’s ultimate victory would be absolute. At the same time, we also meet Jack Langrishe (Brian Cox), head of an acting troupe whose members aim to bring some culture to this remote community. Years later, Milch would say that the stories of Hearst and Langrishe were linked: “It’s seemed to me that when the bosses seem to be in charge, there’s always room for art as a compensatory dynamic. I think that what we do in our society, the best of us as storytellers, present an alternative to the story the bosses are telling.”

At the time of its cancellation, Deadwood was the most expensive regular series on TV, costing $6 million per episode. This was partly due to the difficulty of creating a full-scale replica of an Old West town, with period clothes, horses, and carriages, in which many of the interiors and exteriors were fully functioning, stage-play-like sets, with catwalks covered in fixed lights that could instantly mimic the position of the sun at particular times of day. But Milch’s methods were a much bigger problem. Actors spoke of having just a few minutes to rehearse fiendishly complex dialogue that had been written or rewritten minutes earlier by Milch. There were stories of whole sequences, sometimes whole episodes, being junked and then recast or reshot because Milch wasn’t happy with them for whatever reason. During a set visit in early 2006, Milch admitted to one of the cowriters of this book that much of the third season had been completely reshot. These stories make one wonder if Deadwood wasn’t an example of a great artist going from “worth the trouble” to “not worth the trouble” in his patron’s eyes based on the perusal of a balance sheet.

Between the expense (not helped by HBO having to share ownership of the series with Paramount) and the way Milch’s creative process made outside input impossible, there had always been tension between the show and HBO’s executives, and Milch suspected the end was coming faster than he wanted. The finale is a triumph of bloody-toothed capitalism: Bullock and Swearengen spend the season amassing an army to battle Hearst’s hired thugs, but after Hearst arranges the murder of Alma’s devoted prospector husband, Whitney Ellsworth (Jim Beaver), and Trixie botches an impromptu assassination attempt on Hearst, the camp loses its will to fight. Alma sells Hearst her claim, Bullock loses a rigged election to remain sheriff, and Al murders innocent young prostitute Jen as a sacrificial stand-in for Trixie, whose death Hearst has demanded. The camp is saved, and still on deck to be absorbed into the American experiment, but at a horrible cost. As Hearst smugly rides out of the camp, we end the show with Al on his knees in his office, scrubbing Jen’s blood from the floorboards. Junior henchman Johnny Burns (Sean Bridgers), who was sweet on Jen, awkwardly steps in and asks if she suffered. “I was as gentle as I was able, and that’s the last we’ll fuckin’ speak of it, Johnny,” Al replies, then returns to the bloodstain, muttering, “Wants me to tell him somethin’ pretty.”

Was there more story to tell? Sure. Hearst’s victory proved less absolute in the long term, and there are a lot of other fascinating historical details to work in, including Sol’s political career, Bullock’s friendship with the young Teddy Roosevelt, and the 1879 fire that burned down the Gem and a large swath of the town, forcing Swearengen and others to rebuild bigger and fancier than ever. But it’s hard to imagine a final moment better representing the totality of Deadwood than Al Swearengen up to his arms in blood, covering up one of the violent truths of building a civilization with one last lie agreed upon by all involved.

Excerpted from TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz.

Copyright © 2016 by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz. Used with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.