CliqueClack TV

Hell on Wheels is no Deadwood, but it’s not trying to be

AMC's 'Hell on Wheels' premieres tonight, but don't let what sounds like an awful title get you down. And don't judge the show on its first episode.

It’s an odd thing. When Deadwood first premiered on Showtime back in 2004, I was pretty psyched. I’m a sucker for western-themed movies and TV shows, so it felt like something right up my alley. But a funny thing happened. Toward the beginning of its second season, I lost interest in the show and never returned. Looking back, I’m not really sure why. That odd thing, though, is that now I’m psyched yet again for another western-themed show. Will my interest wane again?

AMC’s Hell on Wheels is set during a slightly earlier time period than Deadwood — the 1860s vs. the 1870s — and follows the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, at a point somewhere in Nebraska. Its locale actually promises to be quite unique. You see, the show’s title — which, to several Clackers is being touted as being “one of the worst titled shows of all time” — makes some sense, as it’s the name given to the traveling hodgepodge “town” that follows the current construction point of the railroad. Hell on Wheels is a lawless, traveling community, whereby the show can take on new locales as the series progresses. Obviously, since the railroad is constructed purely by non-machine labor, these locales aren’t likely to change quickly, but the promise is there.

The primary plot of the series, though, is not of the construction of the railroad. Though the construction of the railroad is a very real part of American history, most of the people we follow are entirely fictional, with the exception so far of Colm Meaney as Thomas “Doc” Durant. The primary story follows as Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), who has taken up residence in Hell on Wheels to find the Union soldiers who murdered his wife during the Civil War. You see, Bohannon was fighting for the Confederacy during the war, so there are a few people not taking all too kindly to him being present in HoW.

In a way, having a defeated Confederate soldier — who is sometimes referred to as a “greyback” — rings of some similarities to Firefly. The character of Bohannon isn’t at all as charming and witty as Mal Reynolds (but, really, who is?), but here you have a man who felt he fought on the right side of his country, only to have survived that war and now have to live among those he fought against. Greyback. Browncoat.

What I found interesting about the first episode was how Bohannon initially comes across as a Clint Eastwood-like badass, who’s going to come right into Hell on Wheels and take the whole thing down with him. Really, he’s dead-on perfect looking for the part. Yet, instead, he’s applying for a job, hat in hand, and getting so quietly drunk he can barely get up from the table the next morning. He certainly didn’t exude a sense of awe that I thought we’d be getting from him throughout the series, but in a way I found that to be somewhat refreshing. Instead of being a very one-dimensional, gunslinging cowboy that we’ve seen time and time again, Bohannon has some very real flaws and weaknesses.

One weakness I found from the show so far — at least in seeing the first two episodes — is the feeling of authenticity in the settings. In Deadwood, I really felt like we were seeing how things really looked and felt during that time period. In HoW, things feel a little too staged, and I felt as though you could almost sense there was something just off-camera — like a telephone pole or a paved road — that, if caught on film, would take you right out of the moment. There’s just something … off about how things look. Maybe people look too clean? I’m not sure.

Another thing that seemed unauthentic to me — at least in the first episode — was the Native Americans. Something about them just seemed unauthentic to me, and that may just be due to having bad portrayals of them in other shows and movies. It’d take someone with more historical sense and knowledge to tell me otherwise.

Things get a lot better in the second episode, and there are parts that serve very well as a launching point for Bohannon and the rest of the series. In fact, I would have suggested to AMC to air both the first and second episodes together on the first night, because if someone was on the fence during the first hour, they’d have certainly been brought to like it after the second.

Like I said, this isn’t Deadwood; Deadwood clearly had its draw and its points that were much better than Hell on Wheels, but HoW has also established itself in a way that will allow it to continue to be defined as a show that’s much different than Deadwood, and possibly a better one in some ways. I’m willing to ride along and seeing if it can keep be aboard.

Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC

6 Responses to “Hell on Wheels is no Deadwood, but it’s not trying to be”

November 6, 2011 at 4:24 PM

I have only seen the preview. I am looking forward to this. I hope it’s grittier than it looked in the preview. I want 1800’s characters to behave exactly how their time dicates.

November 7, 2011 at 1:27 AM

First five minutes truly offensive. I don’t even think I can finish the episode. I miss Deadwood.

November 7, 2011 at 9:14 AM

“Offensive?!” You mean more offensive than saying “cocksucker” every five minutes? ;)

November 7, 2011 at 9:56 AM

Yup. How am I supposed to like the guy who shoots someone in a confessional, after pretending to hear confession, then smirks at the crucifix? Swearengen was a saint compared to that. No contest, Swearengen is the better man. Or blame yourself Keith, you predisposed me to not like it :)

November 7, 2011 at 10:33 AM

- I’m less concerned about the fact he shot someone in church and more curious as to how he was able to predict the person was going to walk in there and confess in the first place.

– This is the first review I’ve looked at that doesn’t mention that the lead was in that crappy Britney Spears movie. Thank you.

– That soliloquy by Colm Meaney was excellently performed and I would have raved about it if he did that during a stage show on the railroad expansion. But, since he did it on a TV show I just kept wondering, “Who the hell is he talking to?”

– With all the beautifully shot scenes and a group of actors that seem solid, this show is still lacking something. By power of deduction it should be the writing, but that wasn’t THAT bad (wasn’t great). Its a pilot though so I’ll give it the 3 episode rule.

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