TImothy Olyphant as Seth Bullock in 'Deadwood.' (HBO)

Before 'Justified' and 'Yellowstone,' There Was 'Deadwood'

'Deadwood' was Timothy Olyphant's breakout and the start of the Western resurgence. Then, HBO canceled it.

It's one of those enduring stories of Hollywood's short-sightedness: Deadwood, the Emmy-winning series from TV great David Milch (NYPD Blue), was canceled at the top of its game. The show aired on HBO from 2004 to 2006, serving up Shakespearean drama in the form of a period Western for three critically-acclaimed seasons. It marked series star Timothy Olyphant's breakthrough and blazed the trail for Justified and Yellowstone. It made a comeback, too, with the cast returning for HBO's Deadwood: The Movie in 2019. And yet, we don't talk about Deadwood enough.

Routinely cited as one of the greatest TV shows ever, Deadwood singlehandedly revitalized the Western genre at a time when The Sopranos was giving the small screen a dose of artistic legitimacy. Set in 1876 in the real-life town of Deadwood, South Dakota, the show follows an ensemble of outlaws and misfits as they attempt to civilize a wild frontier settlement. A mustachioed Timothy Olyphant, fresh off of The Girl Next Door, plays US Marshal (sound familiar?) Seth Bullock, a peacekeeper with one helluva temper. The great Ian McShane (younger viewers know him as Winston in the John Wick franchise) won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the dastardly Al Swearengen, a saloon owner who eventually shakes off that dirty-rotten-scoundrel cloak.

Ian McShane and Timothy Olyphant in Deadwood, now streaming on Max. (HBO)

Olyphant and McShane are the two poles that ground Deadwood, but the series is an ensemble piece above all. Turf wars erupt from gold disputes, weaving a spectacular cast of characters together. Brad Dourif (Wormtongue in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) received an Emmy nod for his role as Doc Cochran. There's also Oscar nominee John Hawkes (Winter's Bone), Paula Malcolmson (Ray Donovan), the late Powers Boothe (Nashville) and Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad). Brian Cox (Succession) and a young Nick Offerman also appear throughout the series.

Deadwood was prohibitively expensive to make, and it shows. Thanks to budget concerns and studio squabbling, Deadwood was unceremoniously canceled at the end of Season 3 — just after stars Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane renegotiated their contracts. As Olyphant tells it, the cancellation was just as big a shock to the cast and crew as it was to fans.

"I bought a house, and yes, I don't think I had been in the house but a few days when [Deadwood creator] Mr. Milch called me in the morning and said, 'Bad news, the show is over'," Olyphant recalled to Rolling Stone in 2019, adding: "And I told him he should come over and see the house before I sell it."

For years, there were rumors of a Deadwood miniseries to close out the story. But it didn't transpire until 2019, when the majority of the main cast reprised their roles in the equally critically-acclaimed Deadwood: The Movie, co-written and directed by Milch and set 10 years after the events of Season 3. It aired on HBO and was nominated for eight Emmy awards.

Timothy Olyphant and John Hawkes in Deadwood: The Movie, now streaming on Max. (HBO)

"I don't know why these f****** blew this show up 12 years ago," Olyphant said upon the film's release. He's repeatedly praised David Milch's superb writing and "chaotic" direction. Milch wrote some dialogue in iambic pentameter, making Deadwood literal poetry, and he made sweeping, ingenious script changes at the last possible minute — often on the day of filming. Olyphant has also said that the Justified reboot Justified: City Primeval, now airing on FX and Hulu, was greenlit because of the success of Deadwood: The Movie. Some legacy.

Deadwood was the first great title of the Western revival. Imitators have come and gone, and none have matched the show's lyrical, operatic blend of historical fiction and good old-fashioned outlawry.

All 3 seasons of Deadwood and Deadwood: The Movie are now streaming on Max.

READ MORE: We Can Thank Quentin Tarantino for the 'Justified: City Primeval' Reboot