Most TV pilots these days are created, it seems, solely with upfronts in mind — here’s an overly broad and overstuffed glimpse of what this series could be if you give us time and money. Maybe that’s good marketing, but it sure isn’t good television. AMC’s latest take at drama, “Hell on Wheels,” fits that mold, its Western Gothic look a bit too slick and purty to feel authentic and its pilot too busy placing style over substance. This story of the Union Pacific Railroad’s stretch westward plays almost like a music video, full of fancy camera work and rich in tone, as if director David Von Ancken found a way to shoot video using the Hipstamatic app. But without a media packet detailing the plot and an overview for the series, viewers will be hard-pressed to know why they should watch the show in the first place. Writers and executive producers Tony and Joe Gayton (who wrote 2010’s Faster, starring The Rock) want viewers to know that life on the frontier in a still-young America was gritty, and while there are scalpings and cut throats in “Hell on Wheels,” little about it is bold. Or engaging.
Title cards tell us it’s 1865; the Civil War has ended, President Abraham Lincoln is dead and “the nation is an open wound.” A former Union soldier stops by a church in Washington, D.C., to confess his sins, among them marching with that asshole Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and committing atrocities against Southerners he can’t even mention. “We opened a dark door, and the devil stepped in,” he says. But his confessor is no priest. After he asks about the soldier’s involvement in “Meridian,” he shoots him in the face, kicks his way out of the confessional booth and saunters out of the church, making sure to scoff at a crucifix as decidedly not-period music swells. This is the anti-hero, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier out to avenge the death of his wife who takes work building the railroad in Iowa. He does so while keeping a stubbly appearance, looking knowingly out from underneath his hat and taking fate into his own hands. “Do you not believe in a higher power?,” an Irish immigrant asks him on a train heading west. “Yes sir,” Cullen replies, “I wear it on my hip.”
Hell on Wheels is the name for what is essentially a shantytown, the camp at the front of the line filled with laborers and whores. The debauchery attracts members of a church, looking for souls to save other than those of Cheyenne Native Americans. “You better keep your eye on your flock, Reverend,” one of the prostitutes says. “We do our own share of convertin.’ ” At Hell, Daniel Johnson, the one-handed railroad foreman, puts Cullen in charge of the cut crew preparing the terrain for track laying. The crew is all-black, and Johnson makes sure to mention to the workers that Cullen used to be a slave owner. (He had five slaves on a small tobacco farm, he says, but he married a northerner and “She convinced me of the evils of slavery,” so he freed them a year before the war.) Elam Ferguson (Common), one of the crew members, isn’t happy to see Cullen, saying, “Some things don’t never change.”
The almost cartoonishly evil villain of the enterprise is Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney), the man heading the Union Pacific Railroad’s construction and who fires his engineer (after slamming his head onto a table) for drawing the track in a straight line. Subsidized by the government, Durant is paid by the mile. “This never-ending, money-gushing nipple pays me $16,000 per mile! Yet you build my road straight!” He has surveyors ahead of the crew in Nebraska, including the sickly Robert Bell and his too-pretty wife, Lily (Dominique McElligott), but their camp is raided by some rightfully-angry Cheyenne. It’s their land, after all. Robert dies, but Lily survives by thrusting an arrow into one a Native American’s throat. Scarlett O’Hara had gumption; Lily Bell has combat skills. Let’s hope the Cheyenne are given actual speaking roles in the series and are presented as more than killers of white folk.
Racism, naturally, is a theme of “Hell on Wheels”; it only took 11 minutes for the first N-word to be uttered. Ferguson helps a fellow worker drink water during their shift, only to see him be whipped by Johnson for not following orders and accidentally pummeled by Johnson’s horse. Now Ferguson wants revenge, even though Cullen tries to talk him out of it. Cullen has his own vendetta to worry about, and he soon learns Johnson was involved in what went down in Meridian — the town in Mississippi where Cullen’s wife was strangled and hanged during the war. Cullen has been killing off the perpetrators, but just as Johnson reveals there was another man present at the crime — and that that man is at Hell on Wheels — and before he can give a name, Ferguson slits Johnson’s throat. That grimness almost is negated, however, by Durant at the closing. He speaks of the railroad in grandiose terms to an unknown audience while scenes of hardship fill the screen: Hell on Wheels moves down the line while Lily, carrying Robert’s maps, wanders through the prairie on her own. The sequence aims for poignancy but falls just short.
As “Hell on Wheels” makes clear, nothing about this time in history was pleasant. It’s interesting that AMC’s dramas all feature bleak and uninviting settings: a zombie apocalypse (“The Walking Dead”), the ’60s (“Mad Men”) and a place where it always rains and murders go unsolved (“The Killing”). Those series vary in terms of quality, but at least they carry central themes and specific hooks to reel viewers in. “Hell” is just a mixed bag of Western cliches, historical inaccuracies and bad writing. So much is going on that it’s hard to know what, if anything, to care about. It looks OK, and it could be OK, but with TV’s Sunday night lineups already crowded with impressive dramas, why settle for OK?
Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama.