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HBO, Looking At 'Deadwood,' Sees Cavalry Riding To Rescue
by Bill Carter, The New York Times (June 16, 2004)

HBO thinks it may have found a series that -- in some ways -- can replace the mighty (and soon to depart) ''Sopranos'' as its centerpiece drama. The show is ''Deadwood,'' the gritty, foul-mouthed Western.

The news on ''Deadwood,'' HBO's latest drama series, has been highly favorable on two fronts. It drew the second-highest rating for any new drama in HBO's history, and it was also greeted with some of the best reviews that the network has seen at least since the start of ''Six Feet Under'' three years ago.

''It really feels like the new franchise we've been looking for,'' said Chris Albrecht, the HBO chairman.

The show averaged about 4.5 million viewers for its 12-week run, beaten only by the 5.4 million that ''Six Feet Under'' attracted in its first season, and more than the 3.4 million that ''The Sopranos'' averaged in its initial season.

Other HBO dramas were not even close. ''The Wire'' averaged 3.4 million viewers for its first season; ''Carnivale'' 3.6 million. Exact audience figures for ''Oz'' were not available, but from its rating, HBO estimated that ''Oz'' drew an average of about 3 million viewers for its first season.

The numbers alone meant ''Deadwood'' was the first truly successful western series since ''Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,'' which started on CBS 11 years ago. The HBO show was widely praised for its writing, performances and western verisimilitude.

''The show just got great reaction in the press, and not just the TV press,'' Mr. Albrecht said. ''We started to see indications that the show has begun to cross over into the popular culture.'' He cited several recent articles that have noted a big increase in tourism in the real Deadwood, in South Dakota. He also said that historians had begun commenting on the accuracy of both the Western details and the events and characters depicted in the series.

Most of the show's distinctive qualities, including complex but down and dirty characters, crude language and sometimes brutal violence were highlighted in Sunday night's finale, which orchestrated a series of tense confrontations among many of the main characters.

HBO was not even disappointed that the numbers for the finale were slightly off from its average for the season, blaming the competition from the National Basketball Association finals. That drew many young men, a surprisingly strong constituency for the show, away from ''Deadwood.'' Many television executives have shied away from westerns because they do not think many younger viewers will watch.

Another reason the finale may have been off a bit was the absence of ''The Sopranos'' as a lead-in on Sunday night.

But Mr. Albrecht said he believed ''Deadwood'' suffered to a degree in following ''The Sopranos'' because, he said, ''it's so hard to have to follow such a heavy, challenging series with another one.'' He said he had also concluded that 10 p.m. Sunday is not the best time to schedule a tough drama.

So he said when ''Deadwood'' returns for a second season next March he would install it at 9 p.m. Sunday, a sign that it has established itself as a main attraction for the channel. It will return before the final season of ''The Sopranos,'' which is not expected until late next year or early in 2006. The next step for ''Deadwood'' will be one of HBO's familiar campaigns for Emmy Awards. ''That is always important for us,'' Mr. Albrecht said.

While the show's writing, led by its creator, David Milch, and a number of its actors seem likely to be nominated for awards, the show's strongest card will surely be Ian McShane, whose performance as the villainous but surprisingly vulnerable saloon owner Al Swearengen came to dominate the series.

''I have not seen people react to a character as much since Tony Soprano himself,'' Mr. Albrecht said. ''He is a very complex character. And then you have just the incredible performance by Ian. Again I don't think we've seen a case since Jim Gandolfini as Tony where an actor and character have merged like this.''