Can I just quote an earlier reviewer (Nobby Yates, see below): "A masterclass in screenwriting, beautiful TV cinematography, Shakespearean-like storylines, a clever fusion of fact and fiction, a strong core of characters, top-class acting, and an aura of authenticism make Deadwood S1 a must watch/buy".
That is right on the money. Deadwood is an absolutely stunning serial that oozes quality. The first thing you need to get over quickly is the language, as a viewer and as a reviewer. This is the most eye-watering script you will have ever encountered - it makes Goodfellas look like Lovejoy. But the language used is also really sophisticated and beautifully used - it IS very Shakespearean at times, most noticably of course during the soliloquies, when Swearengen or Farnum are postulating to themselves about the various plots. I must confess to watching it iwth subtitles switched on - because there is so much nuance and complexity in the script that you do not want to miss.
The collection of characters are just wonderful and rich - I know this is an overused term in reviews these days but this really is an ensemble piece. There are no weak characters - each is fully rounded and given due attention from the peripheral crippled floorsweeper Jewel, via just wonderfully acted characters like the local newsman Merrick, the toadying hotellier Farnum, the excitable Chinaman Wu, the enigmatic and grumpy Charlie Utter, the imposing saloon rival Cy Tolliver all the way to the kingpin Al Swearengen. Women, it struck me, are particularly well written for in Deadwood too. I think if I had to pick out any relatively weak performances in the whole series I'd have to go for former marshal Seth Bullock and upper class widow Alma Garrett, both of whom are a little one-dimensional and unconvincing at times.
I was a fan of Ian McShane's acting before this show but the marriage of McShane and the role of saloon/whorehouse keeper and underworld ruler of Deadwood Al Swearengen is one made in TV heaven. The first time you watch Deadwood Swearengen is a arch villain, an unscrupulous, heartless but clever gangster. But watch the series twice and you start to realise how complex he is, how compassionate, intelligent, trustworthy and just. He kills for mercy and for what's right as much as for financial gain or political expediancy. He berates and humiliates Jewel for being a cripple, yet still he employs her despite her inefficacy when others presumably wouldn't.
Similarly, the first time you watch Deadwood the overwhelming mood you'll detect is one of an uncomfortable scheming, brooding, murderous anarchy. The more you watch however you begin to see that it can be an ordered even hopeful place. It also is filled with moments of genuine comedy with pathos and running gags aplenty. The sets are wonderful, the photography beautiful and the research and energy there for all to see. TV of the very, very highest class.