Deadwood is both what I was expecting, and not at all what I was expecting. First off, it is indeed very good. So good in fact that I've already ordered the rest of the shows run, and so good that when the first series faded to black I sat in silence for a while, mentally processing what I had just seen. Its not that it has a shocking cliffhanger ending; its just that it has a elegant poetry to those final moments I really wasn't expecting, and that confounding of my expectation runs throughout the show.
Ultimately, Deadwood is a show about character. Most of the episodes take place over a single day; opening at sunrise and ending with the characters going to bed, a clever structure it took me a few episodes to realise was in place. Within that day we follow a wide ranging cast with complex, interlocking plots that seem to meander around each other without a clear "through line" on the shows story. Its not about that; each character has a story, but the show just has themes, and how it expresses those themes is the cleverest thing about it.
I love the characters. Pretty much my favorite character at any given time is the one onscreen, and the scripting and acting is incredible across the board. Many start out feeling like Western Cliches, but they're teased out, explained and grown across the season, reflected off other, similar characters to highlight their differences - especially with the staff of the two saloons, who serve as counterpoints in so many interesting ways. The star is probably Ian McShane's Al Swearengen, who could charitably be described at "rough" but everyone gets a moment to shine, and show both their better angels and baser impulses.
Thematically then, this is a show about civilization, and humanity. Deadwood is a frontier town with no legal status built Indian Land and the show is set as it is on the cusp of turning from a "camp" to a true town, and the tensions inherent in a change from a near-feral, lawless situation to a civilised one, and how that impacts on, and is shaped by, thee competing interests of past, present and future. It is also a highly symbolic show; the slow, crippling progression of the Reverend Smith's illness indicative of the passing of one thing; the rescue, recuperation and adoption of the orphan Sofia indicative of the emergence of something else. Its not front-and-centre symbolism, just growing stories in the tapestry of the show.
So yes, Deadwood is brilliant. And yes, I should have watched it years ago. But I'm watching it now, and another gap in my "quality TV resume" is quickly closing!