With the recent success of films like “True Grit” and the video game “Red Dead Redemption,” it was only a matter of time before the Western returned to television. Unfortunately, AMC’s new series Hell on Wheels hits too many clichés of the genre to be considered innovative or original.
Set in 1865 sometime after the end of the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Hell on Wheels focuses on Cullen Bohannon (played by Anson Mount,) a former Confederate soldier who gets a job on the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. He has left his home in Mississippi, as there’s nothing for him there anymore; Union soldiers murdered his wife, and he has come looking for revenge. A brilliant prologue in a church sets the character up perfectly, and it is unfortunate that the rest of the pilot never lives up to the sensational beginning.
Once we reach the construction site, the stock characters begin pouring in: the sassy prostitutes, the earnest preacher, the plucky Irishmen and the cynical former slave. Native Americans show up for one scene in the premiere, as they attack a railroad survey mission, and nothing else. None of these characters break out of their familiar shells, nor are we given much about them; they exist on the show because they must exist in a Western.
Though there is not much violence, each small occurrence of it is given an incredible amount of detail, from an Indian scalping a dead man to an arrow being slowly jammed into the carotid artery of a man’s neck. None of the scenes last very long, but we are forced to pay attention to them. They are easily the most exciting part of the episode, and do not feel gratuitous or over the top at all. Even though the war is over, there will always be fighting.
Each major character, whether it is Bohannon or Doc Durant (played by an exceptional Colm Meaney,) a corrupt businessman handing out bribes in order to gain funding for the construction of the railroad, believes they’re doing the right thing, and that all their actions are honorable. They are not fighting simply for themselves, but they are working to make the world a better place, at least as they see fit. While this will draw comparisons to another AMC series in Breaking Bad, Hell on Wheels never reaches the creative heights or cinematic tension that Breaking Bad provides in every episode.
On the positive side, the show makes use of gorgeous scenery to effectively recreate 1865. But some beautiful shots of prairies and rivers will only go so far when there’s little substance to the drama being played out.
Put simply, Hell on Wheels is boring, at least in the pilot. The show has some potential, but its embrace of the familiar will not help it stand out on the network that created Mad Men and Breaking Bad. AMC’s dramas have frequently attempted to explain the human condition in innovative ways that may not always appeal to the masses. Hell on Wheels takes the AMC formula and puts in a generic show about people fighting for something. Bring back Don Draper already, so we can be challenged and made to think about what we watch.