The 2005 Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor in a Drama Series boasted a truly scary line-up. Michael Chiklis as The Shield's Vic Mackey, Denis Leary as Rescue Me's Tommy Gavin, Julian McMahon as Nip/Tuck's Dr Christian Troy, James Spader as Boston Legal's Alan Shore... You'd have to trawl pretty deep to dredge up a bigger collection of vicious, amoral, self-serving monsters. None of 'em bagged the gong, though - the award was picked up by one of the ballsiest grotesques ever squeezed into the small screen, Deadwood's Al Swearingen, played with magisterial, demonic brutality by the artist formerly known as Lovejoy, one Ian McShane.
The unofficial ruler of the lawless mines, whorehouses and saloons of an 1870s town, Swearingen is a towering, foul-mouthed tornado of awe-inspiring vitriol. He has to be, otherwise he'd be in danger of getting lost among the gallery of freaks and weirdos who populate the only show capable of making The Sopranos look like Everybody Loves Raymond.
The lazy might try and boil Deadwood down to a straight rivalry between Swearingen and town Sheriff Bullock (Timothy Olyphant). There's some truth to that, but even the first series had so much more going on as the townsfolk brokered then broke deals and alliances with one another in the scrabble for an ounce more gold or a minute's more life. Season two becomes even more grubby, compelling and complex. Over 12 episodes, Swearingen and Bullock sway from an opening punch-up in the mud'n'blood of Deadwood's main street to uneasy alliances over external issues (which US state should the town join?) and internal conflicts as dangerous as the battle for dominance between rival whorehouses and the state of Bullock's relationship with a widow, now his wife has come to town.
It's not just the painstaking attention to detail or even the jaw-dropping profanity - has the term 'cocksucker' ever been used more freely on a mainstream telly show? - that makes Deadwood stand out. There's also a bold, borderline- Shakespearean feel to it all. If that sounds like too grand a claim for what looks at first glance like Unforgiven on TV, just watch the grand themes of love, loyalty and the accumulation of power play out. Hear dialogue that peppers swear words into sentences constructed with brutal but restrained formality as the writers ram home the idea that - in a town where death is only ever a trigger pull or a knife slash away - words are not something to be bandied about lightly.
BEST BIT The finale. A Godfather-esque intercut between a cheery wedding and a backroom deal that carves up Deadwood's future, not to mention anyone standing in Swearingen's way...