A blackened chapel sits at the end of a wind-swept town. It’s the kind of town where folks are just as likely to knock you out cold as ignore you completely. There are unspoken rules, but make no mistake…there is no law here.
Welcome to Deadwood.
Reverend Mason, played by Travis Willingham, has come to the town to help revitalize the church – which was recently the target of a destructive arson attack. Strangely, his mission intersects with the fates of 4 others from very different backgrounds:
There’s the stoic Clayton “The Coffin” Sharpe, brought to life by Matthew Mercer.
Marisha Ray plays the seemingly prim-and-proper Arabella Whitlock.
Anjali Bhimani brings the bold and powerful Miriam Landisman to life.
Finally, Khary Payton plays the cautious and street-smart Aloysius Fogg.
Together, the 5 residents of Deadwood initially set out to do some investigating at a local mine. The events that are set into motion from there will shake the town to its core, and undoubtedly change their lives forever.
Warning – Here Be Spoilers!
We here at The Geekly Grind are longtime fans of Critical Role. Since being introduced to the series years ago by friends, a handful of the staff watch the show weekly and have even attended a few of the live shows. Their contribution to the popularity of D&D, as well as tabletop gaming in general, cannot be understated. They bring an exciting and consistent form of entertainment to Twitch every week, and since they formed their own company, the content that they have produced has been equally thoughtful and entertaining.
Undeadwood is on an entirely different level in the best possible way.
From the very start, the cast – in their superb costumes and sporting impeccable accents and characterizations – transport the viewer into the world much faster than Critical Role tends to. Don’t get me wrong – the Critical Role cast can absolutely transport tens of thousands of enraptured fans to another realm with relative ease. In a moment, Matthew Mercer can verbally craft a rich landscape that both his players and audience can find themselves swept up in. However, given the long-running nature of the series and the deeply entrenched personal relationships they all have, the world can quickly be shattered by a well-timed dick joke or horrible pun.
And that’s okay. It’s the pacing and rhythm that Critical Role fans have come to know and love.
With that in mind, the commitment to the world and characterization in Undeadwood makes it that much more impressive – and it starts with the dungeon master.
Brian W. Foster seems to be at home in the DM chair – with superb improvisation and dialogue that sounds like it’s straight out of a classic western film. At one point, as Reverend Mason is being praised for his good-hearted nature, Foster bursts out (in the mannerism of Al Swearengen) that Mason was a “Good man!”, and they would measure the size of his testicles if they only had the time. The cast almost instantly loses it, but Foster maintains the characterization like a pro.
With experience delving into the personal and professional lives of voice actors and other talent on his interview series, Between the Sheets, Brian puts his keen interpersonal savvy to use in making the game approachable and fun for his friends. Deadlands has some familiarity with Dungeons & Dragons, but there was still some early trepidation from the cast, which Brian helps to quell with humor and grace in equal parts. There are lots of folks out there who aspire to be the kind of DM that Matthew Mercer is on Critical Role – Undeadwood may have you adding Mr. Foster to that list.
The cast as a whole is superb, with the majority being familiar faces from Critical Role.
Travis Willingham slides into the role of the anxious and uncertain Reverend Mason with ease. His occasional stammering and awkward acceptance of some of the more…sinful activities within the town ultimately provide some well-timed comic relief. At other times, you can see the weight of his mission bearing down on his heart – he seems sincere in his desire to restore the Church…to provide a place of healing, repentance and safety to the people of Deadwood. Mighty, evil forces might stand in his way, but the Reverend is committed to his goal.
Marisha Ray’s character, Arabella Whitlock, definitely “Isn’t from ‘round these parts” – having traveled from Atlanta following the news of her sister’s death. She’s a respectable woman – of means, but being a female in the 1800s means that this influence and power stops at the feet of men. A point she disdains openly with Mrs. Landisman early in the episode.
Mrs. Whitlock is smart as a whip – familiar with moon cycles, alchemy, and other scientific matters – the full scope of such interest I’m sure will be revealed in episodes to come. Marisha’s characterization of Mrs. Whitlock is brilliant – in her interactions with the more callous folk of Deadwood, you can see the frustration and hear the anger hidden behind her cordial talk.
Khary Payton plays Aloysius Fogg – who is probably the most interested in laying low and staying out of trouble out of the whole party. Not particularly sarcastic or mean, Aloysius (his friends call him “Allie”) has a taste for life’s pleasures, as demonstrated early on when he gladly takes up an offer for a free appointment with the “Ladies of the House”. His background as a former slave hasn’t been explored that thoroughly yet, but given his history, it’s no wonder he’s not particularly keen on causing a scene.
Matthew Mercer’s character may seem strangely familiar to those fans of Overwatch who recognize Mercer’s work as the gunslinging McCree. A no-nonsense killer-for-hire, Clayton Sharpe isn’t entirely bereft of morality. He empathizes with Reverend Mason, and commits to using his experience to help the motley crew succeed in their mission. Mercer’s accent is on point, but even more impressive was the way he controlled his hair! If you pay attention, you’ll notice it swaying in the wind throughout the show…because he just happened to be near the AC vent and nobody told him.
The standout of episode 1, for me, however, was Anjali Bhimani’s performance as Miriam Landisman. A confident businesswoman, Miriam teaches Mrs. Whitlock an important lesson early on – that women have their own power. That the metal bars in the cage of misogyny they find themselves in can be twisted into a weapon…that they need not be the helpless damsels everyone thinks they are. Where Mrs. Whitlock has traditional schooling and intelligence, Mrs. Landisman has a simmering charisma and confidence which, combined with her allure, makes her a force that is rightfully hard to deny.
The cast does a great job in the opening 2 hour episode of laying the foundation for their relative friendships. There is some reluctance within the group to be sure – Mrs. Landisman isn’t entirely trusting of Clayton Sharpe, for example, but at the end of the day, they realize that this mission they’re going on will likely require entrusting their lives to these relative strangers. So, as many in the harsh days of the old west did, they make do.
For a tabletop show, Critical Role brings an impressive consistency when it comes to production value. Whether they’re coordinating a video-conferenced player who may be out of town, or arranging numerous cameras for better shots of the battlefield, the choices and preparation they go through for each episode of Critical Role shouldn’t be overlooked.
That being said, if Critical Role is theater, then Undeadwood is Broadway.
The costumes were my first tell that the series was something different. The Critical Role cast loves to go all out for Halloween, but they aren’t in costume every week. The old west look of their apparel is the first indication that there’s quite a bit more to this series than a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors sitting down to play…Deadlands.
Then there’s the set. Modeled after the inside of an old-timey saloon, bartender included, the coffin-shaped game table and detailing on the walls really help to set the mood as well.
The map of Deadwood was also something else – A 3D modeled rendition of the various buildings in town which was used as a transition/scene-setting tool on a couple occasions.
Most importantly however, was the camera work and the editing. Fans of Critical Role know that the traditional view of the series is a multi-screen experience that features both tables, Matthew Mercer, and a small ad-space that is sometimes used for character info or other bonus content.
Undeadwood takes a very different approach – it alternates from wide views of either side of the table, to close ups of the various characters as they engage in dialogue. The dynamic nature of the camerawork, as well as the excellent editing, makes for a more cinematic experience.
With such impressive production value, it’s no wonder they went for a miniseries first. I think they’ll find, however, that there is a lot to be said for this manner of storytelling – particularly for those who aren’t entirely bought in on Dungeons & Dragons.
If I told you 10 years ago that a show with a handful of voice actors playing Dungeons & Dragons would bring tens of thousands of eager fans to an online platform every week, you’d think I was crazy. Yet, here we are. With the help of Critical Role, and now, dozens of well-produced podcasts, Twitch streams and YouTube series, the tabletop revolution is here.
With Undeadwood, Critical Role is taking another step in this revolution – undoubtedly sowing the seed of creativity and inspiration in a new generation of creative minds. Setting the bar high with amazing production value, an impeccable cast, and an engaging and handsome narrator (who definitely doesn’t smell like cabbage), Critical Role has the makings of another hit series with Undeadwood.