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Didn’t AMC learn anything from “The Walking Dead’s” pilot episode? The cable network’s latest scripted TV show “Hell on Wheels” should have been a two-hour pilot. Or at the very least, a condensed 90-minute opener. Instead, the Western was just only 60 minutes (plus commercials) when it premiered last night after the latest episode of “The Walking Dead”. That gives it, essentially, about 40 minutes of actual show.
Forty minutes is not nearly enough time to introduce a whole new TV show, especially one with as many (literally) moving parts as “Hell on Wheels”, which sets a tale of revenge against the building of the Transcontinental railroad in 1865. (The “Hell on Wheels” of the title refers to the moving tent town and its many “entrepreneurs” that follow the railroad tracks as they’re built across the country.) What we did get, though, was an iffy introduction to our hero, vengeance-seeking Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount), former slave turned railroad laborer Elam (Common), conniving railroad tycoon Durant (Colm Meaney), and the lovely Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), whose husband works for Durant scouting for his railroad. Lily ends up a widow before the pilot is over. Of the four main characters, only Bohannan and Elam meet, while Durant rides around in his portable office/train car twirling his evil (non-existent) mustache, and Lily escapes certain death at the hands of an Indian raiding party.
Created by brothers Joe Gayton and Tony Gayton, “Hell on Wheels” boasts an impressive budget for a cable TV show. I mean, this thing looks good. Everything about the “Hell on Wheels” pilot is spiffy, from the sets to the locations to the costumes. It’s appropriately nitty and gritty when it’s supposed to be and appropriately ethereal and gorgeous when it should be. At times, it even bravely skirts basic cable TV standards, though I suppose after the blood and guts of “The Walking Dead”, “standards” has widen quite a bit. As far as visuals go, “Hell on Wheels” has everything you could want, and fans of Westerns will totally dig it, with steel swapped in for the usual cattle. The show looks better than some Western movies I’ve seen in recent years.
The problem is the writing. If you were expecting something on the level of HBO’s glorious Western “Deadwood”, you may have lost a large measure of hope once the pilot end credits rolled. The two shows certainly look and feel similar, but the writing is well below the quality of “Deadwood” and the acting is spotty at best. The biggest problem could be that “Hell on Wheels” plays it too safe, even as it claims to be doing something different. There’s a fine line there. “Deadwood” had a “anything goes” mentality to it that was aided by HBO’s paid-cable channel status that allowed the Western to do whatever the hell it damn well pleases. Despite pushing the boundaries of standards at various points, “Hell on Wheels” is still on a free basic cable network, so there are still standards that must be followed.
Unfortunately that doesn’t really explain the issues I have. Take, for example, the hero of the piece, Cullen Bohannan, who is entirely schizophrenic throughout the pilot. Here’s a former Confederate soldier who has already murdered at least three men he blames for the murder of his precious wife (a wife so precious she convinced this former Southern slave owner to not only set his slaves free a full year before the Civil War broke out, but start paying them wages!), but by the time he moves on to his would-be fourth victim, he’s playing Doctor Phil to Elam, who plots vengeance against a local boss. For some reason, a man who has traveled across the country purely for the purposes of vengeance starts talking about “letting go” of the past. Predictably, Elam throws it back in his face, and the audience is supposed to get some kind of “Eureka!” moment. Instead, it’s liable to make you groan.
“Hell on Wheels” is only one episode (and 40 minutes in), and who knows, it could greatly improve, but the pilot episode does not have me brimming with hope. Future episodes will no doubt bring the four major characters together — Bohannan, Elam, Lily, and Durant. After all, Bohannan and Elam are working for Durant, and Lily holds something Durant wants/needs. Here’s hoping the writing improves and become less predictable and groan-inducing, and characters don’t do exactly what I expect them to do or say.
It would also be nice if Bohannan was more unpredictable, more dark and less likely to give a rat’s ass about a freed slave who he has never met before in his life. Again, we’re talking about a man who is so filled with the need for vengeance that he’s already shot three men dead in cold blood and traveled across the country to take down a fourth. A guy like that should not be in some stranger’s tent trying to talk him out of killing someone who totally deserves it.