Had Deadwood premiered in 2014 rather than 2004, at the beginnings of the “Peak TV” era, rather than the premium cable “golden age” of a decade prior, it never would have been canceled. Now even the most marginal hits are championed by their networks as centerpieces, and any show that garners Emmy attention is practically guaranteed to stay on the air. Big Little Lies was made as a miniseries and still got a renewal from HBO; the streaming network Netflix has renewed low-buzz shows like Altered Carbon and Ozark despite their mixed reviews.
Deadwood is rightly regarded as one of the greatest shows in TV history, along with HBO’s other totemic contributions The Sopranos and The Wire (which it aired alongside). But unlike those two dramas, it never got a proper conclusion, ending on a confused, if at times poignant, note. The death of one semimajor character played a big role in the inadvertent series finale, “Tell Him Something Pretty,” but so did the antics of a theater troupe that was entirely irrelevant to the larger plot. And though so many of Deadwood’s outstanding cast have gone on to other great opportunities, huge talents like McShane, McRaney, Timothy Olyphant, Paula Malcomson, and Robin Weigert couldn’t hope to top the depth and complexity of the roles Milch wrote for them.
The show’s cancellation was only partly because of its ratings—they were relatively strong by the standards of premium cable, on a par with Six Feet Under, which ran for five seasons. It was an expensive show to produce, given its vast ensemble cast, extravagant sets (most of which still stand in California), and the unpredictable nature of Milch, who was known for running over schedule and delivering script pages the morning of filming. A 2016 Hollywood Reporter feature claimed that he was in $17 million of debt, despite earning some $100 million making television, because of his penchant for gambling.
When Deadwood was canceled, Milch was already busy working on another TV project for HBO, the truly bizarre surfing drama John From Cincinnati, which crashed and burned after one season. He then moved on to Luck, centered on the world of horse racing and starring Dustin Hoffman, but it was canceled in the middle of the production of its second season because of concerns over a series of animal deaths that occurred during filming. All of that, combined with Deadwood’s incomplete ending, have cast a serious pall over Milch’s career.
So why not let the magic of Peak TV reverse that trend? The revival of a beloved pop-culture property is now a cornerstone of every network’s marketing strategy. But it usually brings back TV that delighted viewers in the ’80s and ’90s: Will & Grace (on NBC), Murphy Brown (returning to CBS), Twin Peaks (transmuted to Showtime), and, of course, the intense flash in the pan at ABC that was Roseanne.