IT'S NOT OFTEN that the title of a DVD box set has the potential to annoy the very people it's meant for, but calling something "Deadwood: The Complete Series" might sprinkle salt into a wound that for some fans remains all too fresh.
It's been more than two years since HBO and "Deadwood" creator David Milch reached the perhaps not-quite-mutual decision that there would be only three seasons, not the expected four, of Milch's 1870s masterpiece.
It's been not quite so long since the parties finally admitted that those "Deadwood" movies they'd talked about doing in lieu of a fourth year were dead, as Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) had been long before the end of Season 1.
But whether or not you believe we got the whole story, "Deadwood: The Complete Series" ($179.99/HBO Home Entertainment, discounted on Amazon.com to $104.99) goes on sale today.
What's more, it's being released on the same day as "The Wire: The Complete Series" ($249.99/HBO Home Entertainment, discounted to $134.99 on Amazon.com), another HBO classic and one that ran for the full five seasons that its creator, David Simon, envisioned.
Along with last month's release of "The Sopranos: The Complete Series" ($399.98/HBO Home Entertainment, discounted to $199.49 on Amazon.com), from that other HBO David, David Chase, we're talking a discerning couch-potato's wish list that could break the bank (or sink Santa's sleigh) while pretty much guaranteeing that the recipient wouldn't be up for air till spring at the earliest.
Some of the extras alone, beginning with "Deadwood" actor Titus Welliver's hilarious rendition of the "Al Swearengen Audition Reel," with Welliver playing every part, are enough to guarantee merriment.
Ratings aside, there may be any number of reasons that two Davids got to see their shows through and the third didn't. All three featured sprawling casts, intricate storylines and people the likes of whom had never been admitted to most of our living rooms before.
All three are among the very best television ever made.
Only one, however, required its crew to raise a small city from the dust, and it's that very expensive "Deadwood" set on Melody Ranch in Newhall, Calif. - where parts of "Gunsmoke" were filmed - that Milch walks through in the DVD extra, "The Meaning of Endings: David Milch on the Conclusion of 'Deadwood.' "
Milch, who once said his look at the infamous mining camp in what wasn't yet South Dakota was meant "to be a poem about how the country got made," is the kind of writer TV critics have spent years trying to describe to their readers.
Not that there's a shorthand that works with a guy who's as comfortable discussing William James as he is his own addictions and who cared enough about how the cops sounded on "NYPD Blue" to fly real New York City police officers to Los Angeles for conversation - even while sprinkling just about every character he's ever written with some of his own intricately braided syntax.
Watch (and listen to) "The Meaning of Endings" and we won't have to explain anything Milchian ever again.
Filmed at a point when Milch still hoped to do some "Deadwood" movies, this, he says, "would be a kind of forecasting of what the future would hold."
Really, though, he's there to address the fans, including, perhaps, those who were saying they'd shun "John from Cincinnati," the show Milch made next for HBO, because it had taken him away from "Deadwood."
"The whole idea of the ending of something as being its source of meaning is one I find a little problematic," and the character of saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) "is an apt example of that," Milch says.
"What Swearengen was, how he found his place in the world, in opposition to certain forces that he couldn't exactly understand, but was determined to master, all of that took place here, in the camp. We saw Swearengen in the defining moments, I believe, of his experience," he says.
A fourth season, he seems to indicate, would have seen Swearengen's saloon, the Gem, burned to the ground in an infamous fire and quite likely flooded, too ("as far as I know, there were no locusts or frogs or anything"), and Swearengen himself reduced to a less central figure in the life of the camp.
Milch has things to say, too, about Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), who, like Swearengen, was an historical figure, and about Alma Garret (Molly Parker), Bullock's fictional lover in the series.
"Bullock's relationship with Alma Garret would've stayed pretty complicated," Milch suggests, adding, "I wouldn't hazard too much of a detailed explanation of what the outcome would've been. I find this infinitely depressing, I must say."
Finally, after discussing the fates of a few more characters, he admits: "This was quite a wrench, the conclusion of 'Deadwood.' It was quite unexpected, and quite unprepared for . . . [but] the consolation that I try to find, when I'm not busy just being pissed off, is that the idea of the end of a thing as inscribing the final meaning, the pressure that fixes the mark on the meaning of any experience, is one of the lies agreed upon that we use to organize our lives.
"The truth is that the collaborative experience in our medium, in entertainment, is itself a lie agreed upon . . . What you try to find is a coincidence of separate interests and sustain that coincidence for as long as is possible, never forgetting the fact that the interests are separate."
Simon, Milch's counterpart on "The Wire," is a former newspaperman. But though his sentences tend to be shorter, and occasionally more direct, he as much as says the same thing in a couple of the Season 3 extras, recordings of appearances at the Museum of Television & Radio and at Eugene Lang College's New School for Liberal Arts.
"The Wire," he notes, was written so that any season could have been its last. It was a not-impractical approach for a show that never drew the crowds "The Sopranos" did, and the fact that things worked out so that Simon was able to tell five years' worth of stories - and to end them with something beyond a black screen - is as much a matter of luck as it is planning.
Having spent the past couple of weeks rewatching what turned out to be the final season of "Deadwood," I would argue that "Deadwood Interruptus" is less frustrating now than it was two years ago.
Season 3, which ended in "Tell Him Something Pretty," with a peculiar act of mercy in which Swearengen killed one prostitute to save another, and with the vicious triumph of George Hearst (Gerald McRaney, in the performance of his career), isn't a tie-things-up-with-a-bow finale. Not that that would have been "Deadwood's" way.
But there are bangs, there are whimpers.
In the end, it's enough. *