Monday, November 7, 2011

Hell on Wheels not really living up to its name

    AMC's newest drama is Hell On Wheels, of which the "Pilot" premiered last night. The Western United States, 1865. Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount, Conviction, The Mountain), a former Confederate soldier, packs up after the war to work on the railroad, killing a couple of men on the way. He is willing to take any job, and no wonder; he is there because of the death of his wife. A Union man (Ted Levine, Monk) begins to spill a secret surrounding the woman's murder, but before he can, a bitter, recently freed slave he wronged named Elam Ferguson (Common, Smokin' Aces), slits his throat.

     In the meantime, a Cheyenne tribe attacks Hell on Wheels, the mobile tent town where the railroad builders live. They are angry because the tracks are going right through their land. Among their victims is Lily Bell's (Dominique McElligott, Moon, The Guard) husband (Robert Moloney, K9), who created the plans for the route. This upsets the greedy man behind the project, Doc Durant (Colm Meaney, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Con Air). It also sets Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee) on his own quest.

     The feeling that Hell on Wheels most evokes is boredom. Which is odd, given the concept. It's set in the Wild West, at a time when multiple parties are warring for control of the country. With the nation ripped asunder, and barely beginning to bandage its wounds, the railroad represents an inspiration for everyone, though the harsh reality of its creation is anything but idealistic. Plus, there are murders and revenge quests, and colorful characters, that don't actually seem all that colorful. As such, at least in "Pilot," Hell on Wheels doesn't deliver on its colorful title.

     The obvious fault is not in the actors. Mount simmers in the lead role, keeping his cards close to his vest, and not letting on how much he knows. Common is equally committed as a man who just wants the freedom promised him, and is not patient enough to wait for it. Meaney is tops, relishing the role of villain with aplomb. No one had better dare cross him, because the threat he exudes is serious.

     Similarly, the show looks fantastic. Having not lived in or studied that era extensively, one can only image that the costumes and props are authentic. But it is undeniable that the scenery is beautiful, and the lighting sets the correct tone. There is some real artistry here, if only it would be used more effectively.

     Then again, this is just a "Pilot." Many great series have grown from a lackluster first episode, and AMC's biggest hit, Mad Men, struggled with a very boring first batch of installments, before really picking up. As such, it seems worth it to give Hell on Wheels time to find its footing. There are some great elements present here. Now it's time to let them come into their own.

     Watch Hell on Wheels Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.

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