Hell on Wheels (AMC; premiered November 6, 2011, and renewed for a second season on December 23, 2011)
AMC tries to mirror the success of its 1960s historical drama Mad Men by dipping its television toes into the 1860s with its one-hour Western drama Hell on Wheels. The show’s title refers to the large, mobile town that served as home to many Irish and black railroad workers as the Union Pacific Railroad moved westward from Omaha, Neb., to its eventual connection with the Central Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory. Hell on Wheels operates similarly to Mad Men and HBO’s Western Deadwood in that it tells the stories of a diverse crowd of characters within a distinct time and place. It’s an ensemble in which not every character shines but each, at the very least, brings something different to the table.
Colm Meaney plays Thomas Durant, the fast-talking and ultra-determined vice president of the Union Pacific, who is just as much associated with bribery and scandal in the history books as he is on the show. Durant, along with the cold Norwegian law enforcer known as “the Swede” (Christopher Heyerdahl) and the humorous and constantly quibbling McGinnes brothers (Ben Esler and Phil Burker) seem deserving of more screen time, but sometimes they are lost in the multitude of characters. The star of this first intercontinental railroad drama, Anson Mount, plays the former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannan, who takes a railroad job while searching for the Union soldiers who murdered his wife.
Bohannan gets the most screen time and is likeable enough but, unfortunately, is the dullest of the bunch. The show’s only glaring weakness is Bohannan’s inability to become an intriguing protagonist, and if there is a character to root for, it would probably be Elam Ferguson, a recently freed slave with the heart of a 1960s Civil Rights activist, played by the rapper/actor Common. Rounding out the regulars are the Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan), who has seen too much slaughter in the Civil War and the West; likable American Indian Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears), who struggles to make a place for himself in the changing world on the Plains; and widow Lily Bell (Dominique McElligot), whose late husband had been a surveyor for the Union Pacific.
Hell on Wheels is filmed on location in stunning Calgary and Alberta, Canada. Like its lead character, the series doesn’t really stand out (and certainly hasn’t made the impact that Deadwood did). Nonetheless, it’s a solid show and worth checking out in its second season or when the 10-episode first season inevitably comes to DVD. Even more appealing to Western TV aficionados is that it comes in the wake of what looks to be a mild resurgence of Westerns with Fox, ABC, HBO, TNT, NBC and A&E all having various gunslingers, homesteaders and frontiersmen slated on the horizon. For this welcome development on the small screen we should probably thank the Coen brothers for their big-screen Western hit True Grit.