HELL ON WHEELS Series Premiere Review

     November 6, 2011


After making their original programming debut with the Emmy-winning miniseries Broken Trail back in 2006, AMC makes their return to the western genre with Hell on Wheels, a new drama series that aims to follow in the successful footsteps of series like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. Though a mostly strong cast and compelling story make for decent television, the series premiere feels like a weaker version of Deadwood without the raw energy, violence and language that made the HBO series pack a much more potent punch. Of course, the series isn’t devoid of quality or entertainment with stunning locations, remarkable production design, and a tone and style that is all too fitting of AMC’s current dramatic line-up of slow burning, but genuinely engaging original content. More after the jump!

Hell on Wheels 19 (Dominique McElligott)Hell on Wheels brings viewers back to a time shortly after the Civil War has ended, Abraham Lincoln is dead, and the nation is in an uncertain time. With a cold open, a mysterious character cleverly dispatches with a man who has somehow wronged him (more on that later), but our story really picks up after the opening titles as Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney) speaks to potential investor to keep alive the work and dream of the Union Pacific Railroad spanning across the country, a development that according to Durant will help fulfill America’s dream for manifest destiny. But as one might guess, and as Durant confirms, this speech is nothing but “horsecrap,” and his gentle wording of such a deceptive and almost villainous action is what immediately shows us that this will not be quite as gritty or raw as the real West, or for that matter, the bold and unflinching presentation of this time in our nation’s history that came through in Deadwood.

However, the story slowly but surely does manage to stand on its feet when our killer from the opening scenes, Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount), makes his way to the current construction site of Union Pacific Railroad an area in Council Bluffs, Iowa that is aptly dubbed Hell on Wheels. A former confederate soldier, Bohannon is ruthlessly pursuing the men responsible for his wife’s death during the Civil War, but his attitude on the matter of slavery seems to be a little more soft when his work on the railroad brings him to supervise Elam (Common) and a group of slaves working on the railroad. It’s this relationship that seems to hold the most promise for an unlikely teaming of slave and “master,” but Bohannon’s not one to be bogged down by anything that doesn’t help him in the pursuit of revenge.

Hell on Wheels 20 (Dominique McElligott)Mount presents a quiet, rugged cowboy type we’re used to seeing, but his subtlety speaks volumes more than Colm Meaney’s exaggerated performance as the exaggerated corrupt businessman. Bohannon becomes a man who’s pursuit of justice may define each of his actions, but it’s not the core of who he may have been as a man, and Mount illustrates that rather magnificently. Meaney on the other hand isn’t subtle at all, and it’s hard to understand whether the character really is just full of himself as much as certain monologues to no one seem to imply, or if the writers simply can’t find the right place to let Meaney cut loose within the context of the story. Either way, Meaney’s performance feels a little out of place with the rest of the more low key characters.

From the pilot forward, what’s actually a little disappointing is a lack of contemporary feeling in the presentation of the genre. In the case of the Western, the audiences just aren’t as big as when John Wayne ruled the big screen. Within the first episode, there’s great use of the twangy tune So Far From Your Weapon by The Dead Weather. While a series like Deadwood made use of some music by June Carter Cash and Lyle Lovett, the use of a country-esque rock song from a contemporary supergroup gives the show more style, but I’m sorry to say that the use of more music like that doesn’t seem to stick around past the pilot in the following few episodes.

Thankfully, aside from our two biggest characters in Meaney and Mount, there are some fantastic supporting roles to keep the story moving. A dedicated preacher setting up his church in the middle of mobile whorehouses and bars comes from Tom Noonan while a couple of Irish immigrant brothers (Phil Burke as Mickey and Ben Essler as Sean) are looking to make it big working alongside the railroad with an international picture slideshow. Meanwhile some more shady characters like Tor Gundersen (best known as The Swede) played by Christopher Heyerdahl is intimidating, and steals some scenes, especially in his debut of the second episode and a haunting monologue about the horrors of the Civil War camp Andersonville.

However, moments like this seems to be few and far between, and the problem that persists throughout the entire series is that the drama, violence and more can only be so impacting with the restrictions of AMC not being a pay-cable network. Hell on Wheels can’t seem to do anything that Deadwood didn’t accomplish years ago with much more success, and the more raw bits of vile racial slurs and some graphic violence just don’t hit as hard as they should. That’s not to say the show doesn’t have its own strengths and qualities, but real Western fans, especially those familiar with the HBO series starring Ian McShane and Timothy Olyphant will find themselves disappointed. There are some decent plot twists, especially when it comes to seeing who will stick around for the season after the pilot is through, but it’s hard to tell if anyone outside of Western fans and inside AMC’s core audience who tunes in to nearly all of their drama series will stick around. While the first five episodes leave something to be desired, they’re far superior to any other drama that’s shown up on network television this season, and that just might be enough to keep audiences around in the coming weeks.

Hell on Wheels premieres on AMC tonight at 10/9c.