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'Hell on Wheels'

Chris Large/AMC

AMC's Transcontinental Railroad drama has potential -- if it shakes off its "Deadwood"-wannabe status and becomes more than the sum of its parts.

For Hell on Wheels, AMC's ambitious Western, there's a lot of trouble to deal with right from the start -- present, past and future. In the present, the pilot isn't very good. It's flat, has flashes of action, then ends with a thud. Which, in turn, brings up the past. If you're going to make a Western, you're going to be compared to Deadwood, the HBO gem, no matter what you do. What Hell on Wheels doesn't need, at this point, are comparisons to such greatness. It's not even close to Deadwood. Period. But for the series to avoid worrying about the future -- when a staggering influx of Westerns is coming around the bend -- it needs to establish itself quickly and be compelling in a crowded field.

Having watched four episodes, it's easy to say it will be hard to achieve that goal. There's potential galore -- as there should be when you're doing a genre series with so many possible iconic elements to work with. But there's a nagging suspicion that Hell on Wheels, created by Tony and Joe Gayton, doesn't quite know what it wants to be. After four hours it seems like a collection of ideas that haven't quite jelled.

The series is set post-Civil War and centers on the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Early on, the producers started calling Hell on Wheels an "Eastern" instead of a Western because it focuses on moving East to West (hence, no Chinese laborers). No matter what they're calling it, the bulk of the pilot looks like it wants to be part Clint Eastwood Western (just pick one) and, well, Deadwood. That's because it gives viewers a giant dose of Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Rebel soldier hell-bent on revenge for the murder of his wife. Bohannon's got the squinty eyes, the beard, the hat and the sidearm that suggests "troubled loner willing to kill you." But the series then shifts to Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), the greedy public face of Union Pacific Railroad, who wants to get rich off of government subsidies and land grants for the railroad and, less enthusiastically, to complete the dream of coast-to-coast travel.

The two come together in the moving tent city known as Hell on Wheels, a sort of base camp for the railroad workers as it inches westward. Hell on Wheels, the town, looks like a less realized version of Deadwood, the town in, well, Deadwood. You've got the mud and the whores and the drinking, but not the layered nuance of characters. For example, we learn, as Bohannon seeks a job on the railroad, that he was a former slave owner who married a girl from the North, gave his slaves independence a year before the Emancipation Proclamation, and -- what? Wants revenge? Once he starts to get it, by picking off the men involved, the Bohannon character starts to empty out. We want to know more about him, but he just seems one-dimensionally focused on revenge. He becomes a Clint Eastwood caricature.

The pilot also introduces Elam (Common), an ex-slave none too happy to be taking orders from Bohannon while working as a free man on the railroad. Elam and the rest of the former slaves are evidence that the Gaytons want to tackle the race issue. We also meet Lilly Bell (Dominique McElligott), the only woman who's not a prostitute. So maybe there's an angle to tackle about the hardships of women, too. We also meet lots of Native Americans, though the producers have said they won't really tackle that aspect until season two. But there is Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears) who converts to Christianity under the guidance of Reverend Cole (the wonderful Tom Noonan). So you've got the Indian angle kind of addressed, plus religion. Sean and Mickey McGinnes (Ben Esler and Phil Burke) are the young Irish hustlers in the camp, so check off the immigrant box, too.

But none of these characters really comes to life, even through four episodes. They exist, they hint at an ability to be made into something, but they don't stick with you. The best character appears in episode two -- Christopher Heyerdahl, playing the Swede. How is it that in one hour he seems fully formed but the lead, Bohannon, remains a murky mix of good and bad that is more theoretical than evident?

Of course, to get far enough to worry about that issue, viewers will need to get past the pilot. In short, it just doesn't pop. And having Meaney's railroad boss deliver some ridiculously colorful exposition to no one in particular  -- telling us, not showing us, what the series is supposed to be about -- raises real concerns.

Perhaps some of the issues here can be traced to the fact that Joe and Tony Gayton admitted to TV critics in July that they pitched AMC on a completely different project (which the brothers say AMC didn't get), and were later talked into a Western because that's what AMC was looking for as a way to link the channel back to its Broken Trail roots.

That doesn't exactly scream passion project, does it? And it stands in stark contrast to David Milch's all-in approach for Deadwood. There is still hope for Hell on Wheels if viewers are patient but something needs to happen in a real hurry (like, say, episode five?). If not, it won't be long before more Westerns appear on the TV horizon -- and one of them is bound to get it right.

Airdate: 10 p.m. Nov. 6 (AMC)

Chris Large/AMC
Chris Large/AMC