Review: AMC's 'Hell on Wheels' a by-the-numbers Western
Not good, not bad, not memorable, but maybe a new success for AMC?
By Alan Sepinwall Thursday, Nov 3, 2011 1:30 PM
Early in the new Western drama "Hell on Wheels," which debuts Sunday night at 10 on AMC, railroad magnate Thomas "Doc" Durant gives a flowery speech to potential investors about how the construction of a trans-continental railroad would help fulfill America's manifest destiny. He is eloquent, he is insistent, and as played by actor Colm Meaney, could not be more obviously full of it.
Yet despite the clear performance cues, that scene is immediately followed by one where Doc admits to a confidante that "It's all horsecrap" shoveled into a room of gullible fools.
While the AMC original series brand is still relatively young, most of its shows, whether great ("Mad Men"), bad ("The Killing") or in between ("Rubicon") act like they want their audience to really think about what they're seeing, and to read between the lines whenever possible. ("The Walking Dead" defies this pattern, but nobody expects deep thoughts from a zombie show.) In that one scene shift, "Hell on Wheels" establishes itself as a show that will spell out everything because it doesn't expect its audience to put in much mental effort.
That seems appropriate, in that "Hell on Wheels" itself is a show that puts in the absolute minimum amount of effort to do what it wants to do. It's adequate - certainly no more and probably no less - and seems content with that.
Were you to tell me that someone was making a basic cable drama about the building of the Union Pacific Railroad, I could pretty much picture every detail of "Hell on Wheels" in my head - and the ones I couldn't are where the show just cribs from "Deadwood."
We pick up not long after the end of the Civil War, and former Confederate soldier - who freed his slaves a year before the war, yet still fought for the South as a matter of honor, because that's just how he rolls - Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) is stalking and killing a group of men who done him wrong during the War. His elaborate quest for revenge ultimately leads him to Council Bluffs, Iowa, where the Union Pacific is making slow and unsteady progress out west. Along the way, he encounters freed slave Elam (Common), Irish immigrant brothers Mickey (Phil Burke) and Sean (Ben Essler), crusading preacher Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan) and racist foreman Mr. Johnson (Ted Levine), among others.
Mount has carved out a modest career being professionally handsome, but he's actually solid here as a squinty Clint Eastwood type who lets his sidearm do the talking for him. And he works well opposite Common, who's made one of the more convincing rapper-to-actor transitions of late.
The real disappointment is Meaney, the reliable veteran who somehow fails to convince either when Doc Durant is supposed to be a menacing villain or charismatic hustler. It's a performance that's somehow hammy and flat at the same time, as if neither Meaney nor the show's producers (it was created by brothers Joe and Tony Gayton) could decide exactly what he should be doing in micro or macro.
And yet here's the thing: I've seen five episodes of this show and I imagine I'm going to at least watch the rest of the first season. It's not quite good (other than The Swede), but it's also not especially bad (though it has occasional terrible moments), and I'm a sucker for Westerns. And that may ultimately be what AMC is banking on. Its original programming boom started not with "Mad Men," but with the Western miniseries "Broken Trail," which won four Emmys and broke ratings records for the channel. All of AMC's shows have been chosen to be compatible with some part of the channel's film library, and they've always done a brisk business in horse operas.
They don't need the cowboy equivalent of "Mad Men" in order to have a hit show; they need something that looks convincing enough in a Stetson, spurs and a gunbelt. It needs just good enough, which is what "Hell on Wheels" is.
Full article (might include spoilers):http://www.hitfix.com/blogs/whats-al...umbers-western