‘Hell on Wheels’ Series Premiere Review

Published 3 years ago by , Updated November 7th, 2011 at 2:10 pm,

AMCs Hell on Wheels Review Hell on Wheels Series Premiere Review

AMC has been a meteoric success story in its push to deliver original programming that mixes big-minded drama with a variety of niche genres (horror, crime, period, etc.). Following the continued success of The Walking Dead (and failure of Rubicon), AMC TV is bringing its brand of drama to the old west with the new series, Hell on Wheels.

It’s a bit of irony, considering that airing old westerns was one of the things that helped establish AMC  – but can the network’s new entry in the western genre corral viewers into watching?

The story is set in 19th century America, after the Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. As the nation tries to heal from the scars of war, a great endeavor is put forth: unite the halved country by stitching eastern shore to western shore with a railroad. It’s on the front lines of said railroad that we meet Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount), a mysterious gunslinger who (after a brazen murder) comes out west under the guise of working for the railroad, in order to continue his quest for vengeance. Leading the push for railroad expansion is Thomas ‘Doc’ Durant (Colm Meaney), a tycoon who at once wants to fatten his pocket and make the nation great via cross-country tranist. The other players include a famous topographer’s wife, a fire-and-brimstone preacher (Tom Noonan), a freed slave with a major grudge (Common), and a former slave master with a major grudge (Ted Levine). By the end of the pilot, not all of the aforementioned characters make it out alive.

Review (Spoilers)

Hell on Wheels Colm Meaney Hell on Wheels Series Premiere Review

Colm Meaney in AMC's 'Hell on Wheels'

Hell on Wheels has a lot of good things going for it, but feels like it needs another episode or two to gets its focus in order. Things literally started off with a bang via the opening scene of Bohannan murdering a man in a church confessional. The scene was a great badass western moment, which at once gave us A) a central mystery to mull over (what happened to Bohannan’s wife in that town?); B) A complicated gunslinger main character to follow (kills without mercy…but for justice?); C) A firm understanding of how raw and gritty it’s going to get in AMC’s version of the old West (read: very). Not a bad start.

After that opening, though, Hell on Wheels spread its time around a bit too much for my liking. However, the show still introduced some strong narrative threads that could become some great storylines throughout the season – provided the sub-plots and secondary characters all intertwine in an interesting and sensible way. Besides Bohannan, it’s Colm Meaney’s Doc Durant who is the most standout and interesting character. The first scene of Durant – going into a hard-bargain bribe/negotiation with a Senator – showed just how cunning and ruthless the guy is. Whether in the boardroom, courtroom, or out on the frontier, it seems like Durant is going to be a great villain (as he himself proclaims in a winking end monologue); seeing Meaney play him is just icing on the cake. However, in terms of interesting and/or dynamic characters, I’m afraid Hell on Wheels hasn’t sold me on anyone besides Bohannan and Durant just yet.

Hell on Wheels Common Hell on Wheels Series Premiere Review

Common in AMC's 'Hell on Wheels'

It was interesting seeing Tom Noonan, who played iconic villains in both Robocop 2 and Last Action Hero, playing a frontier preacher (will he be holy, or will he be devilish ?) – but that screen time came and went so fast that I nearly forgot he was in the show by the time the end credits rolled (let alone remembering his Native American convert). Rapper-turned-actor Common has been fairly good in the films he’s been featured in (Wanted, Smokin’ Aces, Street Kings), but this episode basically sold his character, Elam, as being pretty one-dimensional (pissed off) so we’ll need to see more if I’m going to vote for keeping him around. Lily Bell’s (Dominique McElligott) storyline so far has been pretty much a thematic meditation on the changing face of the west, so she’s not even a central focus of the main plot (though her fight in the forest against that Cheyenne warrior was one of the better moments of the episode).

Finally, seeing Ted Levine channeling a little Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs is always a great thing, and his slave master-turned-railroad-manager was one of the better characters in the show. Too bad he got his throat slit by Elam. While the death of Levine’s character, and the final words he spoke to Bohannan, are going to be the galvanizing force of the plot (who is the head bad guy responsible for Bohannan’s tragedy?), the death was staged in a cliched way, and was wasteful of a good character and good actor. Oh well… things are gritty and raw in the old west, remember?

Ted Levine in Hell on Wheels Hell on Wheels Series Premiere Review

Ted Levine in 'Hell on Wheels'

As stated, Hell on Wheels will hopefully streamline its branching sub-plots into one focused narrative sooner before later. For now, the show can be praised for its beautiful aesthetic and sets, quality production value, intriguing characters, engaging central story – and especially its ambition to tell a larger story about America and her peoples via this careful look at a pivotal time in the nation’s history. Even if some of the plot progression isn’t moving as efficiently as it could, it is definitely clear that the showrunners do in fact have their eye on a bigger thematic picture. And that’s what great TV is made of.

You can catch Hell on Wheels @ 1opm, Sundays on AMC.



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  1. I didn’t read the meat of the review, because I DVRed the premiere, but it sounds as if the show debuted pretty well. I’m excited to see it.

  2. Once this show gets its focus it could be really dope. The Pilot was a little too all over the place. And dude getting his throat slit right before divulging what happened to the Gunslinger’s wife was a little to cliché for my taste. I was hoping that plot was gonna die out with Ted Levine’s character. IMO you already have plenty going on and that subplot is now feeling forced.

  3. Such a beautifully shot show with some great talent (I was dissappointed to see Levine leave so early — maybe he’ll be back in some fleshed out back-more-than-flashes?) However, it seemed the show was so focused on developing itself in media res that it didn’t give us much of a story to hang our thoughts upon during the week — backstory it did fine with for the time it had, but it seemed that Colm Meaney’s character had the most development in to who he actually is. The others, not so much. It did give a few questions to ponder, but it seemed a bit empty by the time credits role. I think this show could’ve benefitted from a 2 episode opening. Fortunately I watch The Walking Dead anyway, so I’ll watch it a few more times to see if it sticks.

  4. I am downloading Episode 1 now.
    If it’s nearly as good as Rubicon, I’m all in.

  5. They gotta do better with the engine in the movie…and the tender. They look like they’re made of 2″ thick Styrofoam painted black. Did anyone notice that in all the “action” shots where the engine is moving…the dang smokestack is wobbling back and forth? Closeups should be avoided at all costs…unless they lease a real engine…in fact, long range shots should really be LONG RANGE so you don’t see the whole engine flopping around.

    • no. didn’t notice but good eye there cyclops ….

  6. I just watched the first episode, and I didn’t think much of it, except I like almost any historical drama. The plot was thick with movie/TV clichés – civil war soldier seeking personal revenge, evil over-boss, plucky heroine (she will be, just wait), preacher vs whores, on and on – and the acting leaves something to be desired. In fact, I hope Colm Meany doesn’t have a very big part (probably does, due to having the lead credit), because quite frankly, he’s such bad an actor, he makes me squirm with embarrassment. I don’t know how he gets work, quite frankly.

    I’ll keep watching a couple of more episodes, but so far, it’s nowhere near the best of AMC’s original content.

    First show rating: ★★☆☆☆

  7. I can’t seem to make this Gravatar thing work at all, even though I’ve had a WordPress account for years.

  8. Beautiful lighting and photography and wide panorama landscapes. If they can get the stories right they’ve got a winner here. Colm Meaney is good as usual. Potential is there, let’s see where it heads.

  9. What are the odds that two actors who played serial killers in Thomas Harris’ novels film adaptations would be appearing in the same series premiere.

    Tom Noonan as the Tooth Fairy in “Manhunter”

    Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill in “The Silence of the Lambs”

    Funny….but not HA!HA! funny..

    • I noticed the same thing and found your post while searching to see if anyone else had noticed. I am glad to be part of your exclusive club.

  10. I understand the killing of Ted Levine’s character was necessary because now we have a reason for the title character to stick around the railroad while he looks for the man who was actually baddy #1. I’m just disappointed because he was the only standout of the pilot. Everyone else who had more than 3 lines of dialogue seemed to be over the top. I’ll be sure to watch at least 2-3 more episodes to give the show a fair shot but so far not so good.

  11. Cliche is the one word that kept coming to mind as I watched the show. It has so may BAD cliches that they dont even need to be mentioned here. The only positive thing I can say is that at least it didnt make the Native Americans seem like the noble savages too many other movies try to do.

    If it doesnt get better then I will write it off as another Liberal bent on how the west really wasnt.

    • “The only positive thing I can say is that at least it didnt make the Native Americans seem like the noble savages too many other movies try to do.”

      So how should Native AMericans be portrayed in films?

      • LOL Native Americans are people. And people have a vast range if emmotions and behaviors. So just as the whites and blacks can be portrayed as good bad and morally grey, im positive that the NA can be also.

      • … i’d say portray them as people fighting for their way of life, land and lives!

  12. It definitely seems interesting- it’s not great but I can see it really blooming with more time. I’ll keep watching it to see if there’s an improvement. I’ll probably keep watching if it does get bad though, I like Common and Meaney too much.

  13. I liked it

  14. It had some good moments. After one episode…Doc Durant is the most interesting character on the show. I didn’t care for the “speak to the camera” narrative at the end of the show. Who was he talking to? Obviously, he was talking to you, the viewer, and he was letting you know he is a three dimensional “bad” guy. It honestly almost ruined the episode for me. Do I need this unexpected confessional?

    When the first episode of a show is so full of cliches and bad storytelling, I would normally stop watching it. Bohannan is possibly one of the worst characters in the show. I remember him from a video game called Red Dead Redemption, and he was much more interesting…

    However, it is the first episode. It had its moments, and I realize that a lot of the things I found annoying might help the show find a broader audience. Personally, I think I might have some bitterness towards this show because I never got to see a fourth season of Deadwood…

  15. It was alright and worth at least watching for a few more episodes. A few things were a but out there (like the black guy with a copy of the emancipation proclamation just laying around? …..most colored people back then were uneducated and couldn’t even read.)

    I’ve also always liked Colm Meaney from ST days so seeing him play the head bad guy was highly entertaining.

  16. “Personally, I think I might have some bitterness towards this show because I never got to see a fourth season of Deadwood…”

    Love it!

  17. I enjoyed it and will keep watching but umm yea Deadwood it is not. There can never be a Western TV show as good as Deadwood. Most movies can’t even be as good as Deadwood. Of course I’ll forever have a bit of hatred for Deadwood due to the lack of a real ending and the million stories left up in the air.

  18. Finally unzipped the DVR and watched Episode 1. Even though Levine’s character was a bit of a jerk, I guess it does suck that he was immediately killed off. I did find myself a bit confused by the episode though. Maybe Levine said something about Meridian and I missed it. Overall, a good opening. It got my attention. And so what if Bohannan is like John Marston from Red Dead? I’d watch any Western similar to Red Dead.

  19. The intro was poorly acted. After the drawn out confessional killing scene I was not pulled in to watch anymore.

    Next, we are taken right to Colm Meany big motivational speech which had me cringing. He is trying so hard to hold his accent back that he just doesn’t come across as someone from that time. Where is the southern drawl? His acting is horrendous. He comes across as almost too evil and it made me laugh on too many occasions. Firing and breaking his contractors noes because he built a railroad track properly? Really? really? Oh really!

    The actor, Common, is not good. Id rather watch a Ludacris movie. He tries his very best to be an authentic Black man of the 1800s and does it poorly. Also, this cat is just too light skinned and unrealistic. His southern accent was over acted and just sounded bad.

    The whoopie coughing couple was uninteresting. The fight scene between the couple versus the Native American was laughable. I just couldn’t find a single good thing about the series.

    I would expect a higher budget show like “Hell on Wheels” to really provide an entertaining story with great acting, but it falls short.

    If you want to see a great western show look for “Deadwood”. They really set a good example. I hope “Hell on Wheels” steps it up next episode or I’m done. There is too much competition out there in Hollywood and there are far more entertaining shows than this.


  20. ” He tries his very best to be an authentic Black man of the 1800s and does it poorly. Also, this cat is just too light skinned and unrealistic”

    Do you know what an “authentic black man of the 1800s” is suppose to sound and act like? Do you know that many slave owners had sex/raped their black females slaves. So you shouldn’t expect every black character to be the same skin tone.

    • Thats the only thing you can pull out of my rant? I care less that he is basically white. I care that he is a poor actor and doesnt fit the part.

      /end of story.

      • I had no plans to debate your opinions, only felt like addressing your more simplistic remarks.

        • LOL.. you gotta admit, Common DOES stand out though.
          Seriously, after 2 episodes I’m wondering if I’ll stick around. The whole “Hire me because I know how to blow up bridges” scene was horrible to me. It just didn’t sound like good reasoning or a way to appeal to the owner’s greed or need.
          CK, one thing I will comment on is that southern accents aren’t needed (excluding Common’s need for one). It’a world full of immigrants, ex soldiers, Indians and ex slaves.

  21. Fantastic show. Cullen character is great. Such a bad ass, Durant is a great bad guy. Everyone I know who watches loves the show. AMC is really becoming a good channel.

  22. finally a great western best since series Lonesome Dove been waiting since 1987 don’t cancel ever.