Hell on Wheels: TV Review

There’s a nagging suspicion that AMC's new Western doesn’t quite know what it wants to be.

The series, which stars Anson Mount, Common, Colm Meaney and Lily Bell, is set post-Civil War and centers on the building of the transcontinental railroad.

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 troubles of the future -- when a staggering influx of Westerns are coming around the bend -- it needs to establish itself in a hurry and be a compelling drama in a crowded field.

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Having watched the first four episodes, achieving that goal could prove problematic. There are elements to Hell on Wheels that are compelling. There’s potential galore -- as there should be when you’re doing a genre series with so many iconic elements to choose from. 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, which may explain why after four hours it seems like a collection of ideas that haven’t quite gelled.

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 -- just a collection of former slaves, ex-soldiers and Irish immigrants). 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 simultaneously 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.

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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. That’s partly because Hell on Wheels has trouble, as mentioned above, figuring out exactly what it wants to be. 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. Any other time we meet him, there’s not enough to either love him or loathe him, so he becomes a caricature of Clint.

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 Indians, though the producers have said they won’t really tackle that aspect until Season 2. In the meantime, there’s 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.

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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. That’s because Hell on Wheels wants to be so many parts (or, if you want to be cynical about it, checked off boxes) but there’s no whole. In fact, the best character appears in the second episode but isn’t mentioned in the voluminous press materials or episode synopsis (!). It’s Christopher Heyerdahl, playing a character named The Swede. How is it that in one hour -- Episode 2 -- the Swede seems fully formed and the lead, Bohannon, seems to be an intentionally 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 AMC didn’t get, according to the brothers) and were later talked into the idea of 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 to launching Deadwood. But there’s still hope for Hell on Wheels if viewers decide to be patient (not a given for any show). The elements of a good series are here. There are stories to tell. But something needs to happen in a real hurry (like, say, Episode 5?), to keep the faith. Perhaps there’s a bonding agent that will make this series more than the sum of its parts. 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.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com