Saturday, November 12, 2011

Pilot Inspektor Tim: Hell on Wheels

The show: Hell on Wheels, Sundays on AMC

The premise in ten words or less? Civil War vet works the railroad, hunts his wife's killers.

Any good? If there's one thing I've learned from all other critiques of Hell on Wheels across this great wide internet, it's that you're apparently contractually mandated to talk at length about Deadwood if you review this show. Now, I'm not here to dispute the greatness of Deadwood, and it certainly goes without saying that Colm Meaney's semi-antagonistic railroad magnate here smells faintly of Al Swearengen, but, despite being Westerns set in roughly the same timeframe, I feel the shows are doing two very different things on a structural level.

Deadwood, boiled down to its most basic premise, was locked in and literally about one location, and explored the growth and culture and politics and ins and outs of that location in exhausting detail. Welcome to fuckin' Deadwood! It can be combative!

Hell on Wheels, in stark contrast, is pretty much an on-the-road adventure show. I imagine the people behind it might blanch at such an analysis, thinking it far too base for what they're creating, but it's true. The show, set in 1865 shortly after the death of Lincoln, seems designed to move along with construction of the transcontinental railroad, and has built into its inherent premise a means to continually introduce new characters and locations and conflicts, while of course keeping it anchored by those who work on the railroad.

Chief among this main cast is Anson Mount (which already sounds more like a Western character's name than a real man) as Cullen Bohannon, a Confederate Civil War vet and former slave owner who goes undercover working railroad construction while on a Kill Bill-esque mission to bring vengeance to his wife's wartime murderers one by one. It's a pretty solid premise that provides wiggle room to showcase cool Old West settings that don't necessarily adhere to the archetypal deserts and dusty towns (most of the show actually takes place in the grasslands of middle America) and to tell stories ranging from longform serialized plots to standalone revenge-of-the-week episodes.

What remains to be seen is whether or not Mr. Mount has the presence to bear the load of an entire TV series on his admittedly masculine shoulders. He has a cool beard and a glare and that gravelly Western voice going on, granted. But he just doesn't have the gravitas or the charisma that you might hope for from such an iconic Man With No Name-esque figure, and there isn't nearly as much mystery in his eyes as the director seems to think there is in long, slow, extreme close-ups. In a perfect world, this role would be played by Viggo Mortensen, but sadly, ol' Viggo don't do TV.

This being a serialized cable drama, there is of course an extended cast, but the three biggest players besides Bohannon seem to be Common as Elam Ferguson, a former slave and railroad worker who may or may not prove an ally of Bohannon's (probably so, because the one major black character isn't going to be a villain), Colm Meaney as Thomas "Doc" Durant, the aforementioned ruthless railroad magnate, and Dominique McElligott as Lily Bell, the wife of a contractor who finds herself on the run from some hostile Native Americans.

None of these characters or performances just blew me away, but none were particularly problematic either. I'll offer further judgment on them when I re-review the series in weeks to come. I do raise an eyebrow at the show's adherence to what's been called the "Smurfette Principle" – there being exactly one prominent female in an otherwise all-male cast, something that Deadwood certainly didn't struggle with – which arguably places even more pressure on the character of Lily to step up than anyone else, so let's hope the writers are up to the task.

Now, I should stress that despite the adventure show moniker I've bestowed upon it, I wouldn't really define this as an action series in the traditional sense of the term (at least not yet – Breaking Bad has action scenes, but they tend to be spaced many episodes apart, so Hell on Wheels may be working its way there). There's one scene that could kind of be described as a slaughter and some other instances of bloodshed and death, but, at least in the pilot, these other instances tend to be done in the blink of an eye; the exclamation points on the end of scenes rather than the sentences.

For examples of both the light side and the dark side of where patience with action could lead, you don't even need to change your channel off of AMC. On the one hand, you have Breaking Bad, a show with such rich characterization that long, action-free stretches can nonetheless be gripping and fraught with tension. On the other hand, you have The Walking Dead, which doesn't seem to have any idea what to do with itself if the zombies aren't on the offensive. At this point for Hell on Wheels it's just a question of how well they can do the character work and which show they'd rather be.

But the first episode, while containing a few dead spots, makes for an overall solid and decently atmospheric introduction into the show's world. The production values and costumes and all that are nice enough that I never questioned it being the 1860s, and I think there's a lot of incredibly interesting places the show could go given a few seasons as Bohannon rises up in the railroad biz. It's not great, but I like to imagine that it could be great if they don't fuck it up. So, if you have any inclination towards Westerns whatsoever, check it out.

Will I watch again? It's on AMC, so yes, you can pretty definitively book the first season of this one on my viewing schedule. Now, recent episodes of The Walking Dead have me questioning whether or not the AMC brand is worth what it used to be just a year ago, but still, the network behind Breaking Bad deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Premise: B+

Execution: B

Performances: B-

Potential: A-


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