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.
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.
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?
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.