Hell on Wheels is AMC's most recent entry in its original-series category, and it is a decent effort. The cable channel has made a name for itself with the award-winning series Mad Men and Breaking Bad, along with the zombie drama The Walking Dead. The shows are marked by high production values, strong storylines and complicated characters.
Hell on Wheels is a post-Civil War Western that examines the development of the railroad system in the United States. You have your usual suspects: the wealthy, power-hungry Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meaney), who kicks butt and takes names while bullying his way to ruling the railroad; Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), the former Confederate soldier who is a loner motivated by revenge, yet has a strong sense of honor and empathy toward slaves; the Pawnee Indians, who attack and burn the tent settlements of whites for encroaching on their land; the beautiful, dutiful wife Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), who realizes her strength when under attack from the vengeful Indians; the freed slave Elam (Common), a gandy dancer (railroad worker) who is angry because little has changed for "coloreds" since the end of the Civil War.
Add to this interesting blend of characters stellar cinematography that makes the show look like a scrapbook of sepia photographs, and AMC's attempt to reimagine the Western may be a keeper, despite some challenges.
What derails the show is contrived storylines that will hopefully get better, as was the case with Mad Men. Viewers are supposed to sympathize with Cullen, who isn't really that bad a guy because he freed his slaves a year before the Civil War after his Yankee wife taught him that slavery was wrong.
His character's psychology and behavior are patterned after Mad Men's Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who is a colossal, hateful jerk, except not so much because he's occasionally decent to blacks and women. Cullen freed his slaves but fought on the side of the Confederacy because of "honor." This attempt to humanize Cullen, who murders someone in cold blood in a confessional, is contrived at best.
The character of Elam, played by the rapper Common, is angry all the time — and ironically lacks so much common sense that he confesses to Cullen that he might kill one of the bosses, played brilliantly by Monk's Ted Levine. Elam's lapse in judgment culminates in an act that will have dire consequences for himself and Cullen.
What is interesting about this episode is some of the unexpected turns the narrative takes, much like the railroad that Doc is hell bent on building. These surprising plot points help propel the storyline forward, since the slow pacing makes the show feel more like art house cinema than a television drama. The sweeping scenery and understated yet strong performances by Mount and McElligott also give the show some heft.
In addition, Hell on Wheels is shot in the cinematographic style of Javier Aguirresarobe of The Others fame, sometimes mirroring the stylistic elements of a horror film. The characters wrestle with the ghosts of the past (slavery, murder) while fighting for the spirit of the future (westward expansion and power).
Once the writers realize that dropping racial epithets here and there does not make a story real, and developing multidimensional characters is what drives great television, then Hell on Wheels will be on its way. HBO's Deadwood figured it out and made magic in a genre once thought of as a footnote in television. Hell on Wheels' first episode is shaky but has the elements to become a decent show.
So is Hell on Wheels worth watching? Perhaps. If the show's development is like that of the other prime-time shows on AMC, then slowly but surely, Hell on Wheels will improve.
Nsenga Burton is The Root's editor-at-large.