REVIEW: Hell On Wheels (AMC – Sunday, 10:00 p.m.)

Hell on Wheels is a contemporary Western that centers on former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon, portrayed by Anson Mount, whose quest for vengeance has led him to the Union Pacific Railroad’s westward construction of the first transcontinental railroad. Developed by Endemol USA and produced by Entertainment One (eOne) and Nomadic Pictures, Hell on Wheels is created, written, and executive-produced by Joe and Tony Gayton (Faster, Uncommon Valor, The Salton Sea, Bulletproof). 

Hell on Wheels tells the epic story of post-Civil War America, focusing on a Confederate soldier (Mount) who sets out to exact revenge on the Union soldiers who have killed his wife. His journey takes him west to Hell on Wheels, a dangerous, raucous, lawless melting pot of a town that travels with and services the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, an engineering feat unprecedented for its time. The series documents the railroad’s engineering and construction as well as institutionalized greed and corruption, the immigrant experience, and the plight of newly emancipated African-Americans during Reconstruction. Hell on Wheels chronicles this potent turning point in our nation’s history and how uncivilized the business of civilization can be. – AMC

78 out of 100

So, thanks to Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and The Killing, we now watch every single show on AMC and expect that it’s just going to blow us out of our socks.  And that’s exactly what Hell on Wheels did… during the pilot.  Unfortunately, as good as the show is, it could be a lot better.  We honestly expected to give the show a perfect score of 100 out of 100 after the pilot but it hasn’t quite lived up to those expectations.

As noted, the whole premise of the story is that Cullen Bohanon is on a quest for vengeance against the Union soldiers that tortured and killed his wife during the Civil War and his quest leads him to ‘Hell on Wheels,’ which is the nickname of the roving camp for the Union Pacific Railroad during the construction of the transcontinental railroad.  Now, that’s enough to do a series around all by itself but what immediately happens is that the story becomes a drama about the ‘Hell on Wheels’ community, kind of like Deadwood, being more about the ensemble and far less about the protagonist.  Now, you might say, “well, isn’t that what happened in Deadwood with Seth Bullock?” and the answer to that question is a resounding, “no.”  Deadwood was an ensemble piece from the beginning and though Bullock was the hero, from the beginning the show was about Deadwood itself (and let’s be honest, Ian McShane as Al Swearengen just completely stole all of Timothy Olyphant’s thunder anyway so the protagonist was basically negated).

Why this becomes problematic is two-fold.  First, the Bohanon revenge storyline is being woefully neglected and that’s the main reason that we wanted to tune in after the pilot to begin with and we keep getting disappointed that not more is being done to progress it week after week.

The second issue is that, ‘Hell on Wheels’ is just simply not as interesting of a community as Deadwood was and the story, which is no doubt intended to be, at least in theory, a character piece, seems to be far more event-driven than character-driven, i.e., either they aren’t developing the characters very well or they are just developing them very slowly and this strategy is hurting what is a very good show with the potential to be an Emmy winner.

To clarify, we suggest both character development scenarios because we frankly aren’t quite sure what’s going on here, whether there is a problem with the writing staff developing the characters or whether this is an intentional slow-burn.  Either scenario is problematic, though.  The first scenario doesn’t need a whole lot of explanation as to why it’s problematic, however the second scenario is a little more complicated.

The problem with cable television series is that they run a maximum of 13 episodes per season whereas the average Big-5 Network series will normally run 22 episodes.  To make matters worse for Hell on Wheels, its premiere season is only ten episodes. So, the writers on this series have less than half of the time that normally would be afforded to them on a Big-5 network series to flesh out the characters during their inaugural outing.  If the slow-burn approach to character development is in play here, it’s not very effective because we are 60% through the season and we really don’t know much about any of these characters and the plotline for the first season will be wrapped up within the next four episodes. We’re having a difficult time understanding how they are going to be able to do that and richly develop these characters in that short of a period of time which is a necessity for a show like this.  Futhermore, if they don’t, there’s not going to be a whole lot of excitement with fans of the show clamoring for the next season like there is on such AMC hits as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead and The Killing.

There are a few elements right now that, while they don’t overshadow the aforementioned issues, certainly make you forget about them a little bit.  First, is the trifecta of main characters and the actors that play them and the supporting characters around them. Bohanon (Mount), Thomas ‘Doc’ Durant, owner of the Union Pacific (Colm Meaney) and Elam, a former slave (Common) are the three characters that the show really centers around and all three of them approach the situation from such a diverse perspective that the audience gets easily drawn into the narrative.

As noted, the supporting cast is also magnificent with the two standout performances coming from veteran character actor Tom Noonan as Reverend Cole, the preacher with a very checkered past trying to bring Jesus to this den of heathens and Christopher Heyerdahl who plays ‘The Swede,’ the mysterious and creepy Norwegian (it’s explained that he got his moniker by locals that didn’t know the difference) head of security for Durant whose personal agenda isn’t all that clear.  Again, these characters and performances are all fantastic and all have a huge amount of potential, but they just aren’t being developed fast enough.

What else is right is that the premise and the storyline is very interesting, especially considering the real history behind it that really hasn’t been explored in popular media during any time that we can recall.  Like we said, it is far more event-driven than it should be, but the events do certainly hold our interest.  Again, though, the issue isn’t the story, it’s how long it’s taking to get there.  Hell on Wheels is very slow and plodding and if we didn’t recognize just how much potential all of the strong elements of this series had, we would have lost patience with it by episode four and dumped it.

We definitely recommend Hell On Wheels, not so much for what it is right now, but for what it has the potential (the recurring theme of this whole review) to become if they just pick up the pace a bit.

3 comments on “REVIEW: Hell On Wheels (AMC – Sunday, 10:00 p.m.)

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