I watched AMC's post-Civil War revenge series once. Then I watched it again. Because I couldn't for the life of me figure out what I wanted to say about it.
I was about as conflicted as Hell on Wheels antihero Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount, photo below), Confederate soldier turned vigilante, seeking the men responsible for the death of his wife. His grim vendetta leads him to a job building the Union Pacific railroad, under the bellicose tyranny of Colm Meaney's Doc Durant. Bohannon's your archetypal Western hero -- driven, mysterious and glowery, yet with a nugget of goodness inside (his Yankee wife persuaded him to give his slaves their freedom), even as he murders his way across the country.
I had great hopes for Hell on Wheels (Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on AMC) with the opening scene, as good a character introduction as one could ask. But after that, its homage to Deadwood or Unforgiven or whatever-recent-western quickly turns cliche. Particularly unforgivable are painful scenes of exposition, both featuring boss Durant going on and on and on, talking to no one. This happens twice in the first few episodes, and even a good actor like Meaney can't slog his way through these windy, wince-inducing monologues to make them work.
Of course, in westerns, cliches and clunkiness are not always a bad thing. It's often part of the fun when you know what a character's going to say before he speaks. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of fun here, and there's not enough story depth in the first three episodes to make me feel invested in any of the characters. One exception: Common [photo at top] does some nice work as Elam Ferguson, an emancipated slave, working on the railroad, who's got Bohannon's number. But that's not enough to make me care about any of the others, and isn't that what makes you want to watch week to week?
Yet, I moved from one episode to the next on my preview DVD, and that's what surprised me. Maybe it's because Hell on Wheels, even in its unoriginality, is not about cops or doctors or lawyers. Maybe it's because it's about a bygone time that, no matter how horrifically it's portrayed, seems romantic to us. I also can't help thinking that when TV westerns disappear, so do many jobs you don't even think about -- the wranglers, for instance, who were the original Teamsters. I would be willing to bet a lot of the folks working on this show boast resumes that go back to John Ford and John Wayne.
So, yes, Hell on Wheels will be added to my TiVo, and the reason is probably simple and review-proof. Dang it, I just like westerns, and until something better comes along in the announced crop of upcoming shows, I'll take what I can get.