Given AMC’s enviable track record — and ahead-of-the-curve horror take with “The Walking Dead” — there’s doubtless considerable interest in whether the network can trigger a similar Western resurgence. A promising concept, “Hell on Wheels” — about the launch of the transcontinental railroad, named for the moving encampment that surrounds its leading edge — will evoke inevitable comparisons to “Deadwood,” both for its tone and subject matter. The net result, however, is only fitfully compelling, and for a series about trains periodically runs out of narrative steam in the later legs of the five episodes previewed.
Like “Deadwood,” the camp is a veritable cauldron of sin and debauchery — complete with whores, an imperious leader and a racial/ethnic melting pot, all constantly at a low simmer thanks to open wounds left by the just-concluded Civil War.
Driving the railroad forward is Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney), who revels in his high-stakes project — currently situated in Iowa — being “subsidized by the enormous teat of the federal government.” His bombast is among the show’s least appetizing elements, and to quote another old Southerner, I remember Al Swearengen, and son, you ain’t no Al Swearengen.
Into the camp, meanwhile, comes Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a gun-slinging former Confederate soldier on a continuing mission of revenge, having lost his wife during the war. Bohannon will come to play a more permanent role in the camp’s life, striking up an uneasy relationship with Elam (the rapper-actor Common), who, like many of the freed blacks swinging a pickax, doesn’t see much gain from his plantation days — and doesn’t welcome still being ordered around by white overseers.
Created by brothers Joe and Tony Gayton, “Hell on Wheels” offers an unflinching glimpse at what’s undeniably a fascinating period, using seldom-heard racial epithets as well as bloodshed and violence, which include a couple gut-churning scenes of anesthetic-free surgery. There are also a few wonderfully colorful supporting players, like Ted Levine as the camp foreman and a railroad enforcer known as the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl).
In too many ways, though, the show takes its lead from Bohannon and Elam — two characters who are grim and joyless — down to its washed-out earth-tones look. (Shot in Alberta, the imagery is convincing enough.)
Perhaps foremost, too many key components — the angry Confederate, the freed slave, the striving Irish immigrants, the Native-American brought to Christ, etc. — seem culled from old Westerns. There’s even a later scene plucked out of “A Man Called Horse,” which anyone who saw it will cringingly remember.
While the diverse mix of characters could work to the program’s advantage over the long haul, jumping to and fro among them creates a diluted, herky-jerky ride in the early going.
In one respect, “Walking Dead’s” big ratings would appear to grease the tracks for this new hour, except the zombie show skews toward a younger audience, while the profile for Westerns is traditionally much older.
As the de facto lead, Mount tersely delivers plenty of tough-guy dialogue, wearily describing his actions during the war by saying, “I did the best I could in a bad time.”
Substitute “in an OK show,” and you’ve got a pretty good road map to the way “Hell on Wheels” chugs out of the station.