AMC has delivered some of the most compelling and intellectual dramas on television in recent years with “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead.” The network is now seeking to add another program to that line-up with the series “Hell on Wheels.”
The show focuses on the construction of the transcontinental railroad in post-Civil War America. And with this new America comes the challenges of integration, reconciliation and Westward expansion. It’s an ambitious objective that sometimes delivers and sometimes goes a bit off track.
The main character is Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier who is looking to start a new life while seeking to avenge his wife’s murder. Hip-hop artist Common joins the cast as Elam Ferguson, a recently-freed slave who finds that life after the Emancipation Proclamation isn’t significantly different than it was before. The rail building effort is run by Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney), a corrupt businessman who is more focused on personal profit than creating the best railroad possible.
What’s most impressive about “Hell on Wheels” is the production value. It appears that no detail was overlooked – from the costumes to the set design to the location. Because of this, the show instantly grabs viewers and takes them back in time. What was surprising and worthy of note is how graphic some of the violence and medical practices are. This is mostly a function of the equipment available in the 1860s, so it adds to the realism. But it can be a little much.
The pilot itself is a bit slow in the story department but strong in the character development. The series heats up in the second episode with the introduction of the railroad security chief The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl). His quiet yet threatening presence is reminiscent of the Arnold Toht character from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (a.k.a. The guy who burns the medallion in his hand).
What’s troublesome, sadly, is Cullen Bohannon. He’s just your run-of-the-mill Western character in that he’s a hard drinking, cigar smoking, rough-and-tumble kinda guy who won’t take guff from anyone. He offers the predictable sneers from under his black hat but is seemingly unable to offer much humanity to balance his Western machismo. The biggest question about Bohannon is what will he do after he avenges his wife’s murder. He doesn’t seem to be particularly invested in the railroad construction and he’s pretty much a lone wolf.
Common is competent in his role, although he’s not give a lot to work with. Meaney, on the other hand, doesn’t offer the bite this role requires. It really deserves someone who can exude conniving and ruthless, like Ian McShane.
At the end of the day, “Hell on Wheels” is beautifully-filmed project that offers exceptional attention to detail on everything but the main character. Here’s hoping they can steer it in the right direction.
“Hell on Wheels” debuts on AMC on Sunday (Nov. 6) at 10 p.m. ET.