David Milch, the creator of HBO's "Deadwood," says the show couldn't have been done on any other network, and that's probably true. Few other outlets have tried westerns recently, and none has featured a villain like Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), a profane, surreally menacing saloon keeper.
In one scene, Swearengen sweetens a prayer for a butchered pioneer family by blithely informing his patrons of a half-price special on the services of his prostitutes. McShane's portrayal makes Al Pacino's gangster Tony Montana in "Scarface" seem charming.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 23, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
"Deadwood" cast: A caption with an article about HBO in Monday's Calendar section implied that Keith Carradine was still on "Deadwood," about to begin its third season. His character was killed in the first season.
Of course, HBO has always taken pride in running apart from the network pack, hence its marketing slogan, "It's not TV. It's HBO." But as the abrupt death of "Deadwood" makes clear, HBO is behaving much more like a regular network these days, albeit probably by necessity rather than choice.
HBO revealed this month that, because of a complicated nexus of money considerations, "Deadwood," one of the network's top four original series after "The Sopranos," will most likely end its run with the third season, which starts June 11. Although the network did not cancel the show, it allowed the ensemble cast to pursue other work elsewhere, effectively spelling the end of the series because of the difficulty of reassembling such a large number of actors.
Outraged fans, who were expecting the fourth season that producers had already mapped out (but which the network, it should be noted, never officially announced), promptly organized a show-saving campaign, with some demanding a "cancel HBO" boycott (for details, see savedeadwood.net).
"Deadwood" died with its boots off, and even those closest to the situation seem a bit baffled.
"I am deeply disappointed by the way things turned out," Milch said last week. But HBO executives "felt like they had to make a choice. And this is how they chose.... I know they tried to work it out, and I tried to work it out with them."
"Not having a fourth season of 'Deadwood' is not the result anyone wanted," Chris Albrecht, HBO's chairman and chief executive, said by phone Thursday.
But the network grew excited about another Milch project, a surfing drama titled "John From Cincinnati," and did not believe he would be able to return to "Deadwood" for some time, Albrecht added. By all accounts, the network did not wish to pay the "Deadwood" actors' contracts during the months spent waiting.
Milch, who seems genuinely excited about "Cincinnati" (its pilot starts shooting in July near Imperial Beach), said that "Deadwood" is a costly show and that it does not produce the high ratings "Sopranos" does. In addition, his deal with CBS Paramount's TV studio was winding down, which "didn't help" the situation because it removed a potential financial partner from the equation (Paramount owns some of the distribution rights to "Deadwood"; studio spokespeople did not return requests for comment).
Milch confirmed that Albrecht offered to approve six episodes rather than 12 for the fourth season -- in the TV industry, a so-called short order. But the writer-producer rejected that because of bad experiences with short orders on series like "Hill Street Blues."
And with that, "Deadwood" was dead.
This anti-climax may become a turning point in the history of HBO's highly regarded original series initiative. For years, HBO has been known for spitting out large wads of cash for corporate parent Time Warner. In turn, the network has spent lavishly on shows and talent. The first 12 episodes of the historical epic "Rome," for example, cost a reported $100 million -- a dizzying sum even by TV standards -- and "Sopranos" star James Gandolfini takes home a paycheck reputedly worth at least $11 million a year, including a cut of DVD sales.
But HBO has good reasons to mind its pennies these days.
In September, HBO renewed "Rome" for a second season, despite lackluster ratings. Since then, the polygamy-themed drama "Big Love" has premiered to middling numbers and mixed reviews despite a costly public relations blitz, and "The Sopranos" has seen its audience dip from previous highs.
While getting an accurate bead on HBO's subscriber tally is perennially difficult -- many analysts peg it at roughly 28 million -- it's been years since the network launched a series that spurred subscriber growth a la "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos."
Albrecht said he's not worried that "Deadwood's" end will lead to subscriber losses, given HBO's rich mix of series, movies and sporting events. "It's always news to me that people subscribe to HBO for only one thing," he said.
Meanwhile, Hollywood writers shouldn't assume that "Deadwood's" fate means HBO's mandate has changed, Milch said. Compared with other networks, HBO enjoys a particularly artist-friendly reputation. "They continue to be that place," he said.