The network's track record thus far has been enviable, but 'Hell on Wheels' (10PM Sunday, AMC) is disappointing on any number of levels. I certainly wasn't a fan of how 'The Killing' ended its debut season, but at least that show started out strong, and the rest of the network's programs offer compelling characters, distinctive aesthetics or solid takes on conventional premises. In some cases, AMC's dramas excel in all of those arenas and many more.
'Hell on Wheels' does one thing well: It's good at being tedious.
There is a truly compelling performance in the early going, but that doesn't come from star Anson Mount, who is glumly competent at best.
Mount plays Cullen Bohannon, a Confederate veteran with personal vengeance on his mind (if you liked the misty flashbacks to a dead wife in 'Spartacus: Blood and Sand,' you'll find much to savor here). Bohannon gets a job on the transcontinental railroad, and in the second episode, the lone gunslinger tangles with a man the rest of the railroad workers call the Swede.
The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) works as the head of security for Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), the blustery man who is building the railroad, and the Swede is someone you can easily picture smiling amiably as he slits a man's throat. Heyerdahl, a savvy and skilled character actor who is well known to fans of supernatural and sci-fi fare, has such weird magnetism on screen that the instant he appeared in 'Hell on Wheels,' I began to hope that the narrative would turn its attention to the looming Swede.
Of course that didn't happen. No, we're stuck with Durand, whose bloviating quickly becomes predictable and tiresome, and Bohannon, who is probably supposed to recall the taciturn, archetypal men of classic Westerns. The problem is, while 'Hell on Wheels' is clearly trying to evoke Western archetypes and aesthetics, in most respects it displays a startling lack of imagination. The narrative and dialogue contain an almost fatal mixture of blandness and clumsiness, and aesthetically speaking, the drama is pedestrian and derivative.
Still, if you're a hardcore aficionado of stories set among men on horseback, you may be willing to put up with the drama's problematic elements, which include a diffident pace and unmemorable characters. I never was a big fan of Westerns and stupidly resisted watching the first season of 'Deadwood' for that reason. But part of the reason that HBO show belongs in the pantheon of great television is because it blew apart classic Western mythologizing while telling deeply felt stories about unforgettable characters and the community they created. It both reinvented and transcended the genre it came from.
'Hell on Wheels' doesn't do any of that, and to be clear about my own expectations, I didn't require it to. All I really hoped was that it would do what 'The Walking Dead' did for zombie dramas -- tell reasonably interesting stories within a familiar framework.
But Bohannon's personal quest isn't particularly compelling, and the world of the railroad camp is not populated with characters I longed to spend time with. Common gets little of interest to do as a former slave named Elam, the there's also a subplot about a young surveyor and his wife, but that's by far the most boring story of all. And I've been a longtime fan of Colm Meaney (raise your hand if you've also seen every episode of 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine'), but all he's asked to do here is chew scenery and give monologues that sound laughable in comparison with Al Swearengen's transfixing orations.
You'd think that a show about building a railroad would have some kind of momentum, but 'Hell on Wheels' barely gets up a head of steam in its first few hours, and whatever its destination, I won't be along for the ride.
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