Dead good, or dead wooden?

19:20, Jan 22 2013

There are a handful of shows which are generally considered - both by critics (including me) and the public - to at least be in the discussion for the title of Greatest Television Shows ever made. HBO dramas The Sopranos and The Wire, AMC hits Mad Men and Breaking Bad, British dramas Prime Suspect and Brideshead Revisited, comedies Seinfeld and Arrested Development ... the list goes on, and is usually different for each person.

But there is one show that everybody seems to agree is great, which never seems to place on lists: Deadwood.

Deadwood is one of the most interesting shows of the past decade. It was produced from 2004 to 2006 by HBO, and created by David Milch - a writer known for improvisation: actors would often turn up to set and find that pages of the days script weren't going to be written. The show offered a different setting, different types of character and a different approach from what viewers were getting at the time.

The cast was extensive, the ensemble loaded with fantastic actors such as Timothy Olyphant (now on Justified), Ian McShane (soon to be seen on Four's American Horror Story: Asylum), John Hawkes (Lost), Dayton Callie (Sons of Anarchy), Jim Beaver (Supernatural), and plenty more. And by combining Milch's trademark improvisational style with a tangible connection to real events in 1870s America, the show was able to stand out from the crowd.

TV critic Alan Sepinwall devoted an entire chapter of his recent book to the show, calling it "one of the greatest works to ever air on American television". But how good is Deadwood really? Where does it place among the best?

Most critics can't seem to agree, with the show placing all over the map when some website, magazine or newspaper does one of their Greatest Television Show Ever lists. Depending who you refer to, Deadwood is 17th (Sydney Morning Herald), 20th (Paste), 31st (Empire Online) or just in the Top 100 (Time) among the best - but it also fails to crack the New York Post's Top 35, The Guardian's Top 50, UGO's Top 50 and TV Guide's Top 50.


Personally, I don't think it should be anywhere near the very top of any list. The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad and Mad Men are probably the four greatest shows ever made, as of this minute.

You could definitely convince me that Deadwood belongs in fifth place. With the exception of the third season, Milch's best work on the show is as good, if not as consistent, as those ahead of it. Deadwood also boasts a pair of lead characters - Olyphant's Seth Bullock, McShane's Al Swearengen (especially Swearengen) - who deserve to be mentioned among the greatest characters on television. When Deadwood was great, when the writing was at its best and the setting and cast being used to full effect, it was great.

But you could also convince me that it should be outside the Top 20, or lower. It was easy to get lost in the large cast, plenty of subplots (including most of the third season's county elections storyline) didn't really stick, and the sudden cancellation after Season 3 - blamed on HBO's unwillingness to renew cast contracts, though stories differ - counts heavily against it.

Deadwood is a great show, most of the time. There is no disputing that. Just how great it is, and where it should rank among the greatest shows of all time, is what I'm interested in. Time to turn this one over to you ...

Where do you think Deadwood ranks among the greatest shows of all time? Up near the top of the list? Outside the Top 50? And what was your favourite - or least favourite - thing about the show?

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