Thursday, November 10, 2011

Hell On Wheels: AMC’s New Western Falls Flat

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on November 10, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Anson Mount stars in AMC's Hell On Wheels

As I watched the first episode of Hell On Wheels this past Sunday night, I slowly began to realize that I was feeling something I had never before felt while watching the premiere of an AMC original dramatic series: I was bored. Reviewing a show based only on its first episode is a risky business, though I do generally feel less guilty about it when it comes to cable shows, with their relatively short seasons and high production values. (The first episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead – which premiered almost exactly a year ago – told me everything I needed to know about the show and gave me every reason to keep watching.) And, much to the misfortune of AMC’s new series, I fear the first episode of Hell On Wheels is equally representative of the series as a whole.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I don’t think they were unrealistic. AMC had given us a string of ambitious, structurally and morally complex, shows over the past few years (Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead), and I suppose I’ve gotten spoiled. Add to that that Hell On Wheels is the first major Western to appear on television since Deadwood went off the air in 2006, and you’ve got a recipe for disappointment. Perhaps the inevitable comparisons with Deadwood are unfair – after all Deadwood is as much a Western as The Wire is a police procedural, and there are few shows in the entire history of television that would survive the comparison. But Hell On Wheels, to its own detriment, invites the comparison: with a hero who can barely contain his seething anger, a recently widowed city woman, its lawless, frontier community setting, and its monologuing Machiavellian villain. And speaking for this one viewer, it was difficult to keep memories of Deadwood from rearing up.

Common as Elam
As the opening titles tell us, Hell On Wheels is set in 1865, on the heels of the end of the Civil War and Lincoln's assassination. It tells the story of the race to build the first U.S. intercontinental railroad, a project intended to both literally and metaphorically bind together a broken nation. The title of the show comes from the name that was given to the lawless rolling tent city that would follow the loose community of railway workers as construction on the Union Pacific rail line moved west ("Population: One less every day" as a sign tells us.) We enter the camp through the eyes of our main protagonist, Cullen Bohannon, played by Anson Mount (his last regular TV gig was NBC’s Conviction, a short-lived legal drama created by Dick Wolf in 2006). Bohannon is a former Confederate solider who joins the Union Pacific crew as they move westward, but it turns out he isn’t just looking for new opportunities: he is seeking vengeance against the former Union soldiers who were responsible for his wife’s death.

AMC has done the antihero thing before: arguably it is what AMC does best. From Mad Men, to Breaking Bad, to The Walking Dead, AMC has shown a willingness to let its protagonists break from a conventionally moral path. And apparently there was still room for a touch more moral ambiguity on its schedule: a touch, but not too much, and therein lies the problem. We are introduced to Cullen Bohannon as he commits what appears to be the stunningly cold-blooded murder of an unarmed man, and inside a church no less! But soon enough, Cullen is revealed as a Southerner with surprisingly modern sensibilities (he freed his tiny contingent of slaves a year before the War broke out, only fought for the Confederates as a ‘matter of honour’) and once the back-story of his wife’s death is revealed, that opening scene very quickly gets recast as a justifiable execution. Bohannon is a murderer but not a racist (thank goodness!), and not really a murderer after all. In fact, by the middle of this first episode, our antihero has very little anti- left in him – and this is before we see him step up in defence of one of his ex-slave workers.

All of this is evidence of the larger unevenness of the show: Hell On Wheels evokes the revisionist tones of Deadwood only to snap back to the Western tropes you’d have thought we’d just left behind. For another example: to the show’s credit – unlike on Deadwood where Native Americans were an unseen presence for the show’s three seasons, and more theory than reality for the inhabitants of the town – Hell On Wheels seems intent in making them a living reality of the frontier. And in fact the scene of the Cheyenne siege on the surveyor camp (which travels ahead of the main work crew) is one of the most gripping scenes of the episode. The noiseless fall of the warriors’ arrows, combined with dawning horror on the face of the surveyor’s team as one by one they go down, paints a horrifying picture. But as effective a scene as it may be, its image of the Indian feels cartoonish and dated: the Cheyenne enter in full brutal array like boogeyman in war paint. There may be more complex characterizations of Native Americans waiting for us in future episodes, but if or when it comes, the story will be fighting an uphill battle of its own creation.

Colm Meaney as 'Doc' Durant
Colm Meaney is on board as railroad magnate Thomas "Doc" Durant – a character inspired by the real Thomas Durant, the man who directed this early era of construction of the Union Pacific Railroad (and also one of the men behind the Crédit Mobilier scandal of 1872), and rapper-turned-actor Common plays Elam, a recently emancipated slave who develops a surprising bond with Cullen. While future episodes will no doubt let us explore this itinerant community better, the pilot episode clearly intends to introduce us to our four main characters: Bohannon, Durant, Elam, and the recently widowed Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott). Only two of these characters have interacted at all in the first episode, so in that area the show still has time to find its bearings.

Mount – with his gruff demeanour, the dark good looks, and the perennially squinting eyes – is convincing as the grizzled gunslinger. He is a man with literally nothing left to lose – his wife, his farm, even his homeland were casualties of the war. This theme is perhaps the most promising one from the pilot, and hopefully as we delve deeper into “Hell on Wheels" itself (the concept, not the show), this image of a wandering city can begin to reflect the inner lives of our characters – because certainly Cullen, Elam, and Lily have that rootlessness all in common.

The acting on the series is uniformly strong, and if there is a weakness here, it lies primarily in the writing. With all due respect to Meaney’s talents (he has been a favourite of mine since his portrayal of Miles O’Brien on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), his Durant is scripted without charisma or nuance; all bluster and mercantile self-interest, he comes off like a one-note robber baron with only profit on his mind.

Dominique McElligott as Lily Bell
The show’s writing is blunt, often quite literal. Rather than trust the audience to work things out on their own, much of the dialogue is overly expository, seemingly intending to punctuate the obvious. We have characters telling us how evil they are instead of showing us. We meet ‘Doc’ Durant as he gives an impassioned, patriotic Manifest Destiny speech to potential investors in his new railroad. Even without another word from Durant, it is clearly a load of crap – and the next scene, where he shamelessly bribes a US congressman, would have made that clear even if it weren’t. But the script has Meaney saying it aloud: “it’s all horsecrap,” he tells the congressman in the next scene. Why? What would have happened if we trusted in Durant’s sincerity for a few seconds longer? To risk yet another Deadwood comparison (with apologies): David Milch, for all his writerly ambitions – and his other, less literary excesses – trusts his audience. His writing invites us in, and lets us participate in the construction of the narrative world he is creating – instead of telling us to lean back in our sofas and wait for the story to come to us.

Still, there were some promising aspects of the pilot: for example, we witness the beginnings of the relationship between Collen and Elam, scenes which are largely devoid of the on-the-nose dialogue of some other relationships introduced in this first episode. Let me be clear: Hell On Wheels isn’t actually bad television – it is merely underwhelming. It has a lot to speak for it, specifically a solid cast and the typically high production values we’ve come to expect from AMC. Unfortunately it just isn’t something to get excited about – and frankly, I’ve gotten used to being excited about new AMC shows. If you’re looking for Deadwood, there’s hope just around the corner: Milch’s new HBO show, Luck, premieres on December 11. In the meanwhile, I recommend pulling the Deadwood DVDs off the shelf.